Tag Archives: digital identity

Fighting Slut-Shaming and Cyber-Bullying: 7 Things Teachers Can Do

These last few weeks, the topics of slut-shaming and sexual extortion have been weighing on my mind. These are huge problems facing girls in schools and I’ve been thinking a lot about how they tie into digital citizenship and the formation of a digital identity. Through watching videos, reading articles, and reflecting, I’ve come up what I think some of my responsibilities are – as a teacher and as a young woman – to support my students in the face of these issues.

Your Body = Your Worth

About two weeks ago, I went to a film screen put on by The UnSlut Project, a project working to undo the dangerous slut shaming and sexual bullying in our schools, communities, media and culture. Here is the trailer for the documentary film:

Emily Lindin started the UnSlut Project in response to hearing stories about suicides of girls like Rehtaeh Parsons, Amanda Todd, and Audrie Pott. She was reminded of how she felt when she was labelled as the school “slut” in her middle school and decided to share her story by posting her diary entries from ages 11-14 online. The Project has become a collaborative space for sharing stories and creating awareness of sexual bullying and slut-shaming.

While watching the film, it stuck out to me that girls are told over and over again that their worth is based on how their bodies look to other people. The media constantly imposes impossible standards of beauty on girls and diet/beauty industries fuel body dissatisfaction to make profit.

It starts scary young. Media Smarts reports that three-year-olds already prefer game pieces that depict thin people over those representing heavier ones, while by age seven girls are able to identify something they would like to change about their appearance.

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Image from Media Smarts

“The barrage of messages about thinness, dieting and beauty tells “ordinary” girls that they are always in need of adjustment—and that the female body is an object to be perfected” (Media Smarts). And not only are girls told that their bodies are objects to be perfected – they are also told that until they can perfect their bodies and become thin, beautiful, and sexy, their worth is compromised. If they want to be worth something, they need to eat less, workout more, show more skin… The list goes on.

Sexy = Valuable But Sex = Shameful

So this idea that girls must have a perfect body and be sexually attractive in order to be worth something sounds awful when you say it outright; however, these are the messages that the media is sending to young girls, who often receive and internalize them.

And perhaps the most sickening part is that when girls learn the rules of our culture – that their sexual desirability is what makes them valuable – and try to portray themselves as sexy, they are labeled, shamed, and bullied for it. It’s a vicious, grueling cycle and one that many girls, including Amanda Todd, have fallen victim to.

This paradox doesn’t disappear as girls grow up, either. It manifests in double standards that put women down for doing the same things as men (ie. she’s a slut, he’s a stud). Jarune Uwujaren from Everyday Feminism puts it this way: “Ironically, our society simultaneously values women for their sexual desirability and shames them for having sexual desires.”

What’s the point? There should not be worth tied to a woman’s or a girl’s sexiness or how much sex they choose to have. Slut-shaming is extremely harmful to a person’s self-concept and internalizing those negative messages results in tragic outcomes for girls and women.

Constant Pressure, Little Control

Girls are constantly pressured into portraying their bodies in ways that will please others, whether it’s posting pictures to social media, sexting, or revealing themselves to a camera online. But once they share, they have little control over how the images will be perceived or what the viewer might do with the image. The pictures are easily circulated and become part of a digital footprint that remains with them forever.

The Sextortion of Amanda Todd, a documentary by the Fifth Estate, shows the extensive blackmail that the seventh grade girl received after flashing the camera in an online chat with a man she had been messaging with. He was a ‘capper’ – a cyber-predator who stalks websites looking to flatter girls into performing sexual acts and then capture and distribute their images. When Amanda was put under pressure, she made one mistake and the damage was done.

Although the RCMP was notified about blackmail attempts on at least five occasions in the two years leading up to Amanda’s death, they simply told the family: “If Amanda does not stay off the internet and/or take steps to protect herself online … there is only so much we as the police can do.”

This (lack of) response horrifies me. It’s victim blaming and it places all the responsibility for Amanda’s protection on her and her parents’ shoulders. I think it would have been pretty obvious that it was the RCMP’s job to protect Amanda had her harasser been physically stalking and harassing her. Why should it be any less their business when it’s online?

Digital Dualism

I don’t think it’s realistic for us to tell young people to just stay offline when their lives are so intertwined with online spaces. They have grown up in a world of digital dualism, where they interact in two different worlds that are fully, inextricably weaved together. We can no longer separate our digital lives from our offline lives, nor can we expect young people to do this. And avoiding the problem wouldn’t have solved anything, anyway. She couldn’t have stayed offline forever.

Amanda needed someone to teach her how to protect herself and be safe online. She needed someone to show her that she could start to build a trail of positive artefacts (which I think she was trying to do in the famous video where she shares her story) that would someday outweigh the picture that destroyed her reputation. She needed support in rebuilding her self-concept and strategies to deal with her online and offline bullies.

As educators, what are our responsibilities? What can we do about all of this?

  1. Speak out about slut shaming and sexual bullying.

We must start with a ground up approach by speaking out within our personal spheres. One strategy suggested by the Unslut Project is to ask the person to define “slut” or to explain what they mean by their problematic comment. The conversation might go something like this:  “What do you mean by ‘slut’? “Well.. a promiscuous woman.” “What’s promiscuous?” “Well.. she has too many sex partners.” “So how many is too many? Who gets to decide?” It quickly becomes apparent that no one has any business judging anyone else based on their sex life.

It’s also important to note that women can simultaneously be victims and perpetrators of slut-shaming. This means we need to be critical of our own thoughts and careless comments and catch ourselves when we slut-shame. Through speaking out and listening to one another’s stories, we can humanize each other and begin to work together against this shaming.

2. Help students deconstruct media messages and develop critical thinking skills.

I tried to do this in my internship through a health unit on body image. I had my students examine a variety of advertisements and critique them in groups using a questionnaire. We discussed influences on body image, such as the media, family, friends, culture, place through videos like this and talked extensively about stereotypes related to body image. In fact, this unit turned my students into the Stereotype Police. They became really passionate about reporting stereotypes they heard at home, around the school, and from one another. We also examined photoshop mistakes and saw how photoshop is used to create a problematic “ideal” body type. These are just a few ways we can get students thinking critically about the messages the media sends.

3. Educate students about their worth.

It’s our job to make our students feel loved, respected, valued, and affirmed for who they are and what they do. When we constantly remind students how irrationally crazy about them we are, we help them understand and believe that they are worth so much more than what their bodies look like.

“And when you start to drown in these petty expectations you better re-examine the miracle of your existence because you’re worth so much more than your waistline.”

“…Standards don’t define you. You don’t live to meet the credentials established by a madman. You’re a goddamn treasure whether you wanna believe it or not.”

I also recently came across this beautiful poem by Rupi Kaur and I think it would be great to share with students:

i want to apologize to all the women i have called beautiful

before i’ve called them intelligent or brave

i am sorry i made it sound as though

something as simple as what you’re born with

is all you have to be proud of

when you have broken mountains with your wit

from now on i will say things like

you are resilient, or you are extraordinary

not because i don’t think you’re beautiful

but because i need you to know

you are more than that”

Rupi Kaur

These are the kinds of traits we need to recognize in our students and help them recognize in each other. We can model these types of compliments: You are resilient. You are passionate. You are extraordinary. You have such great vision. You are working so hard. I love how you support your group members. Through our words and through the resources we bring in, we can show our students how deeply valuable they are and remind them of their endless potential.

(My focus in this post is on girls, but I recognize that boys also need to be educated about their worth, as they are also affected by the problematic way that masculinity is defined and portrayed by the media. I also recognize that transgender students, probably the most of anyone, need to see positive representations of their identity in the classroom. So although I’m focusing on girls in this post, I truly believe in instilling a positive self-concept in ALL students.

4.  Educate students about digital identity and digital citizenship.

Teaching students the how and why behind constructing a positive digital identity is an extremely important responsibility, as professional digital profiles have huge effects on future employability and might even start to replace resumes.  The digital footprint students leave will impact them short-term and long-term.

This tweet, from Katia Hildebrandt, is a response to this article, which makes it clear that as a society, we are willing to consider the context and timing of mistakes like DUIs, but unwilling to consider the context and timing of mistakes in the form of hateful social media comments.

Because their digital actions will continue to affect them throughout their lives and because of the harm we have seen in Amanda’s story, it is imperative that we teach our students to ask themselves questions before they put anything on the Internet. When posting about themselves, we might teach them to ask: Would I want my grandma or future employer to read this? Does this represent me in a positive way? And when posting about others, we might teach them to ask: How would I feel if this was shared about me? Do I have this person’s permission to share about them?

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Photo Credit: MO3-2005 via Compfight cc

We can also teach them about online predators and the risks of exposing themselves online. We can show them examples of how our digital footprints can easily slip out of our control. Rather than asking students to simply avoid the internet or installing ineffective filters, we need to give them the tools to make responsible decisions for themselves.

5. Educate parents about digital footprints and their child’s digital identity.

Along with educating students about digital identity, we need to educate their parents. Research from the University of Washington finds that while children ages 10 to 17 “were really concerned” about the ways parents shared their children’s lives online, their parents were far less worried.  Another study finds that ‘sharenting’ – parents who share details of their family life online – can be detrimental in cases where parents put their online popularity ahead of spending time with their child. We need to model the process of asking students for permission before sharing about them online. We can offer support in helping parents find a middle ground, where they can share about their children online in a way that doesn’t compromise the child’s privacy or dignity.

Throughout the documentary, Amanda’s parents went from supporting her use of YouTube as a tool to share her singing talents to being highly concerned about her online behaviour when her photo went viral and she began to receive blackmail from the capper. Although they documented everything and continually informed the RCMP about the blackmail, they seemed ill-prepared to give Amanda any advice on how to defend herself online or how to start to repair her digital identity.

6. Educate ourselves about the online tools, apps, and websites students are using.

We need to keep up with the online tools are students are using and bring those into our classrooms and schools. For example, young people love Snapchat and there are many ways we can use Snapchat in our schools and classrooms for teaching, communicating, and sharing. We also need to educate ourselves on specific issues related to the tools, apps, or websites being used. For example, I recently became aware of the huge issue of cyber self-harm, a phenomenon in which young people create fake online identities to attack themselves and invite others to do the same. They might do this to pre-empt criticism from others, to bring their pain out into the open, or to get compliments from peers. We need to make ourselves aware of these issues so we can better understand what our students are going through and can support them in the best ways possible.

7. Educate everyone about moving toward a more forgiving digital world

Finally, because we are living in a world that no longer forgets, we need to work towards greater empathy and forgiveness towards others when they make mistakes online. We need to learn to make informed judgments rather than snap decisions and teach our students to do the same.

This means a few things, which Alec Couros and Katia Hildebrandt outline in their joint blog post. It means thinking about the context, timing, and intent of digital artefacts when we evaluate them. It means considering whether the artefact is a one-time thing or a pattern of behaviour. And it means holding ourselves accountable to the hypocrite test – asking ourselves whether we have ever said or posted something similar and thinking about whether we would want that held against us.

Burden or Opportunity?

My heart breaks for Amanda Todd, Retaeh Parsons, and so many other girls who have taken their lives due to experiences like this. As educators, we have a ton of responsibilities for educating ourselves, our students, and others on these issues. These responsibilities may seem burdensome, but they also place us in a unique and critical position to support students and families as we all learn about digital identity formation and online safety together.

So what do you think? What other responsibilities would you add to this list? What steps can we take to prevent tragedies related to slut-shaming, cyber-bullying, sexual extortion? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Why we cannot stay silent: performing online to build networks of solidarity

Digital Sleuthing and Context Collapse

In my ECMP 355 class, we recently engaged in a digital sleuthing activity, where we were put into groups and challenged to find out and record as much information as we could about an individual in about 7 minutes. This activity launched discussion around the importance of having a strong, positive digital identity in today’s world. This article even suggests that digital profiles, including professional Twitter, YouTube, and blog accounts, will soon replace the paper resumé.

Naturally, after digital sleuthing Alan Levine, I felt compelled to Google myself and check out my digital identity these days. When I did, I was pleasantly surprised (and slightly uncomfortable) with the results. Everything that came up on Google’s first page was actually about me. It came up with my portfolio, my Twitter account, pictures of me, my profile on the Regina Cougars Athletics site, my Storify account, an article about Katia and I presenting at an education conference in London, my YouTube channel, and my Pinterest account.

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What freaked me out a little more was looking through the images associated with my name: 6 pictures of my face; a bowl of the delicious honey lemon chicken I pinned on Pinterest last week; pictures from #TreatyEdCamp; STARS Regina logos; and pictures of my friends, classmates, and profs.

Google knows me very well… (and therefore, anyone with Internet access potentially knows me that well). It creates an interesting and strange dynamic. I can no longer control who knows what about me (context collapse); I can only control what is out there for people to know about me.  

Performing Online (and IRL)

I like to refer to “what is out there for people to know about me” as how I perform online. To me, ‘performance’ means mean the way I choose to portray myself in certain online spaces (ie. the topics I deem important enough to tweet/write about, how I choose to respond or not respond to controversial articles, whether or not I share that picture of the super healthy salmon, quinoa, and broccoli dinner I had last night, etc).   

I like to use the word ‘perform’ for a couple of reasons:

  1. It felt a bit like acting when I first started sharing on social media. I was unsure of myself, I was overthinking my hashtag use, and I was constantly wondering what others would think about what I was sharing. However, I sneakily pretended I knew what I was doing over and over again until I actually felt like I knew what I was doing. 
  2. I’m taken to the Butler/Foucault idea of performativity – that everything is performance, that we are constantly enacting particular discourses, and that identity is fluid rather than fixed.
  3. I think performance is a constructive starting point (and sometimes the only possible starting point), as I describe in this blog post and Arthur Chu describes in this critique of #NotYourShield.

Performing as Anti-Oppressive Educator

I perform the role of anti-oppressive educator online in many ways:

I include #starsregina, #socialjustice, #treatyed in my Twitter bio, and I identify my location as Treaty 4 Land.

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I tweet about social justice issues.

I write (not often enough) about privilege, racism, sexism, and mental health.

Why engage with these difficult topics in online spaces?

  1. Because they are important. Plain and simple.

It can be terrifying to share about these topics, as Kendra describes in her beautiful post, The Untold Story; however, silence often means complicity in the dominant narrative.

Audre Lorde challenged others on their silence in an incredible speech she gave way back in 1977:

“What are the words you do not have yet? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?

She also warned against staying silent due to fear:

“For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

And finally, she emphasizes that speaking out bridges differences:

“My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.”

You should probably just go read the whole thing. It’s amazing.

  1.  Because sharing and bridging differences in this way builds powerful networks.

We talk all the time about the importance of building a PLN and how these connections provide us with invaluable resources and relationships, but it’s even more than that. Our networks help sustain us when we feel we are falling short, when we lose ourselves in fear and drift back toward silence.

As Sherri Spelic eloquently describes in this post:

Pooled with other folks’ resources, the radical can grow, the imagination nurtured, a collective power set free. Precisely when I am feeling small, deflated or unheard, when I am asking myself that critical question: “Who am I to do this work?”, this is when I have to see that I do not and need not walk alone.”

So I will continue to perform in real life and online, aiming to maintain and strengthen my positive digital identity. When sharing, I aspire to overcome my fears, reject my silences, and respect my need for language, definition, and discussion around important, sometimes discomforting topics. In doing this, I hope to build a network that will support, encourage, and challenge me, but most of all, remind me that I’m not alone.

Has your PLN ever helped you through challenging times or times when you felt isolated? Has your network ever encouraged you to break your silence on an important issue?  Comment below – I’d love to read your thoughts on this!

Can we pretend our way to becoming anti-oppressive educators?

Lately, I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about the ideas of performance and authenticity. As a chronic people pleaser, I often feel myself “performing” or taking on certain roles to suit the social situation I find myself in. Watch this unreal spoken word piece describing performance to understand what I mean.

I am also constantly performing my gender. I don’t do this intentionally, but I do think of it as performing because I’ve learned to act, walk, speak, and even take up space in “feminine ways” through regulated discourses of what it means to be female since before I was even born. This might also have something to do with why I’m a people pleaser..  Food for thought.

Likewise, my journey to becoming an anti-oppressive educator began as a performance. I was performing “good student” in ECS 110 and ECS 210, which both focused on the “isms,” dominant discourses or common sense, and oppression in schools and society. To perform good student, I read about racism, gender performance, national identity, white privilege, heterosexism, ableism, colonialism, and social class; I critiqued popular culture for problematic representations of self/other; I started thinking and talking about race; I reflected on my positionality and privilege; I engaged on Twitter and on my blog to start to build my PLN; I learned about treaty education. The list goes on… And all of those things started because I was determined to perform good student.

When I first realized that I cringed at the idea. Why did this journey have to start as a performance? Can’t I be authentic in anything I do? (Possibly not, because I’m not sure that authenticity is a real thing.) I thought that since anti-oppressive work is important to me, it should have been “real” from the start.

Now I’m realizing that maybe it had to start as a performance because these are uncomfortable issues to engage with. Maybe performing helped me ease into the role of attempting to be an anti-oppressive educator because I was able to “try it on” first. This gets even more complex when I think about the different social media platforms I engage on, because I perform anti-oppressive educator on Twitter but not on Facebook (but that’s a blog post for another day).

Anyway, at some point in my performing, I found real value in and passion for this new role.  I can’t pinpoint exactly when I shifted from performing anti-oppressive educator to truly believing in and trying to live out this role, but I don’t think it really matters.  I’d like to say that I no longer perform it at all, but that isn’t true either.  Performance is ongoing, but I believe this kind of performance is constructive.

I’ll leave you with a few questions and I’d love to hear thoughts, feedback, or more questions in return!

How are performing online and performing face-to-face similar and different?  Do you agree that performance can be constructive or do you think it makes anti-oppressive work less authentic/less valuable?