By Marco Ciappelli
A Conversation with Dr. Scott Poland
Maybe a few years from now I will rewrite this piece, and I will reach a different conclusion; who knows, if technology keeps moving at this pace, in a relatively short amount of time Artificial Intelligence Entities will be advanced enough to be indistinguishable from humans. Bots will write like people (hopefully better), be able to have a conversation with humans and nobody will be able to tell the difference. They will think, dream, have feelings, and - hopefully not - they will also behave just like regular people.
At that point in time, AI Bots could, of their own accord, decide to use the internet, not only for work but also to entertain themselves. They will watch videos, listen to music, read magazines, play games, and even create social media accounts to stay in touch with their human or bot friends, network and develop a personal brand - eventually, one day they will start harassing people that they do not like. Maybe they will believe that they are smarter, stronger, better; that they are part of a better race, culture, or group; they may worship a way cooler God; or maybe they just want your lunch money. Whatever it is, they will have a few stupid reasons that made them decide that it is rewarding and socially acceptable to hurt someone to obtain something from them or to prove their shallow points. Because, in the near term, they will be weak, just like us - their creators. In the end, it may be a completely different story altogether.
Then, if ‘then’ (the end) comes soon enough, I will be willing to rewrite this chronicle, and I will join that vast group of uneducated people that nowadays are pointing the finger at technology and state as a fact, that computers, smartphones, the internet, and social media are the reason why cyberbullying exists.
That day will be the day that I would think it is acceptable to absolve parents, teachers, government, communities, and society as a whole from any cyberbullying responsibility. Because only at that point a human being would not be involved in the decision of premeditating to perpetrate an act of online bullying with the intention of hurting someone. Only then, I will be able to NOT consider someone’s failure the reason why a kid, a teenager - or any human being - would cause pain, mental distress and even death to others. Of course, only in those cases when it turns out that the perpetrator of such an act is an AI Entity gone bonkers. Only that day, under those specific circumstances “technology” could be held responsible for an act of cyberbullying.
That day will be the day when we will realize, for sure, that we have failed to use technology to improve our world and our lives, to make a better world for ourselves. We will regret to have created technology in our image, embedded with our bias, our temperaments, jealousy, hate, dishonesty, and cruelty; our hypocrisy; our bigotry.
That will be the time when we will need to be sincerely concerned about our survival because the singularity would most probably not bring a better future for the human race. It would bring us an augmented human race superficially better, but deeply worst.
This scenario may not unfold. Maybe we will be smart and prevent this from happening by controlling and using AI to create, not a worse, but rather a better place for ourselves. Of course, in that case, I will never change my mind with regard to the fact that technology is made, controlled and used by humans. It is an instrument, a tool, a neutral concept that, just as any other tools, can be used for good or for bad.
Technology, computers, the internet, social media, robots or artificial intelligence are not intrinsically positive or negative. It is easy to blame technology for a behavior that could have been prevented by educated and responsible kids, parents, teachers, friends, journalists, and pretty much the entire human race.
We must educate the new generation to deal with a constantly evolving technology and the way it effects society and the future generation.
Cyberbullying doesn’t happen because of technology. It happens because someone is using technology to bully someone. If you think that technology alone is going to resolve this problem you are wrong, as it is not a technological problem. It is a human problem. It is an education problem.
I wonder, today, who is going to educate the educators?
I had an interesting conversation with Dr. Scott Poland a nationally recognized expert on school crisis, youth violence, suicide intervention, and he has been writing and presenting on suicide and bullying in schools for more than thirty years, serving as an expert witness in many school lawsuits with regards to suicide and bullying. He is also a course author and expert with Vector Solutions, a leading eLearning provider of K-12 educational training programs.
He has lectured and written extensively on these subjects, appeared on all major television network news programs, and has presented over 1,000 workshops in every state and numerous foreign countries.
If you are a parent, a teacher, or simply a human being, I guarantee that you will find this conversation on Cyberbullying quite interesting.
Let’s listen… or read the transcript, right below.
* If you have read my introduction above, you can go directly to the conversation by skipping ahead to 5':48'' - Enjoy!
Dr. Scott Poland: Thank you very much, Marco. I did work full-time in the schools for 26 years, and for the past decade I've been teaching graduate classes to school psychologists, clinical psychologists, and school counselors. I do believe that it's vitally important that we focus on bullying prevention, especially in our schools and our communities. The traditional bullying and cyberbullying – in many ways they are intertwined, but there are just some really unique things about cyberbullying. Perhaps we should start with a quick definition, which is mocking, harassing, posting negative things about someone online or through texting or any social media.
What I sometimes hear is the question like: "Something was posted online. It clearly wasn't nice, but is that really bullying because, by definition, bullying has to be repetitive?" And by the way, bullying is all about power, and it's about humiliating another person. So is something that's posted one time, does that really meet the definition of bullying? And I believe the answer is yes. Because what happens is that a lot of kids sign on and they approve, or they even add to it. A question in a webinar the other day was, "Well, a kid certainly didn't add to it, but he gave a thumbs up."
And there is a lot of concern now about the anxiety that bystanders basically experience. Because at some level, they know they should have done something and they didn't speak up. They didn't try to support the victim. Some people have even argued that that term bystander, that's way too passive. Somebody is actually a witness. When you are a witness to bullying that seems to imply that you should document it. You should at least speak up to an adult.
The world has changed so much. Because when I grew up, I was actually in a home where there was one telephone and there was a cord on that phone. And I swear to you, my mother sat next to it my entire childhood and adolescence. Well, that meant when I walked into my home, it was essentially a safe haven. Nobody could reach me unless they wanted to talk to my mom first. Today, unfortunately, many young people have their sleep disrupted because they have their cell phone, their iPad, right there under the pillow. So they can't escape as easily.
The bullying is continuing. It's pervasive. The cyberbullying is essentially there forever. And I think – one last thing before I see what thoughts you have on this, Marco – boys and girls tend to bully differently, with boys being more physical, more right in somebody's face, more taunting. Where, really, for decades, girls have tended to do more things behind someone's back, which means spread rumors about them or everybody is invited but a certain person. And unfortunately, cyberbullying is the perfect platform for relational bullying. It's just so easy to post something that is derogatory to another person. And the anonymity of it, although sometimes we can find out exactly who posted it, not always, and the anonymity of it lends itself to even meaner things being said than somebody might actually say in person.
And the research, one of my students did her doctoral work on bystanders and cyberbullying, and it seems like the more people that are online, the less likely it is that somebody might say that's not right, or I don't agree, or we should just stop saying those negative things. So cyberbullying is quite a challenge today.
Marco Ciappelli: I agree with you, and I come from a generation very similar to what you described. I remember bullying was something that would happen in the presence of the other people. Being anonymous online and being behind this impersonal avatar gives a lot of power to people that maybe would think about it before actually doing it face to face. One significant phenomenon that we have on social media nowadays is what they call "trolling." People are so bitter about everything and attacking other people just because they make a grammar mistake, they did something wrong, or they have an opinion that is different from theirs, without even thinking about it twice. Do you connect this trolling phenomenon to the bullying phenomenon as well?
Dr. Scott Poland: Well, yes, absolutely. One of the more tragic, and we could go on and on about tragedies that have resulted from cyberbullying, one of those would be the Megan Meier case and the Megan Meier Foundation. Megan Meier was an adolescent girl victimized by an adult in her community, and that was certainly a contributing factor to her death by suicide. Then there was the young woman from Canada who moved a couple of times, and somehow the troll kept finding her, her friends in her new school, and kept threatening her, and wanting her to do certain things online. And if she didn't, then they would be contacting others in the community putting tremendous pressure on her. Sometimes in my classes, the students show the YouTube video that that young woman left behind, and she's standing with note cards, and she's telling this tragic story about how she could not escape, and how this girl kept finding her. I think they finally did locate that person that lived in Holland, and I she was prosecuted.
But at a preventative level, there are, I think, three key groups that we need to talk about. We need to talk about parents. We need to talk about schools. And we need to talk about students themselves, because I would argue that the critical element of any prevention program is actually students themselves. We have to educate them. We have to supervise them. And one of the great resources I'm aware of, it's called commonsensemedia.org. They have an entire digital citizenship curriculum across ages. And it's really important to start early.
I've got to give you a recent example. I spoke to new sixth grade parents, and I gave them probably the kind of message you would expect a psychologist to share about being involved in your kid’s life, knowing exactly what's going on, and it’s not enough to know their friends, you've got to know the friends’ parents. Then I talked about technology, and I said the technology is actually a privilege. It's not a right, and don't let technology basically steal your child. And I almost wanted to have these parents stand up and repeat after me, "I am the parent. My happiness can not depend on whether or not my 11-year-old likes me right now." But I didn't go that far.
The next day the principal called me and said, "The parents loved your presentation. They want you to come back to the school." And I said, "Why would I come back? They heard my thoughts on this." "Oh, they want you to tell their sixth-grade children why they're going to change things." And the problem is that they almost completely missed the message. But that made me think: we’ve got to start earlier. I needed to be talking to, maybe even first and second-grade parents about monitoring, controlling this.
It's interesting that the American Medical Association says no more than two hours of screen time. Well, they need to talk about different developmental ages, because I think two hours would be plenty, even maybe too much, for a six or seven-year-old; but two hours is not too much for a high school student. And there's a lot of research out there being gathered with some results like this. If we talk about teenagers, they are having less sex. They are going out less. They are using fewer drugs, yet they are more unhappy than ever before because they tend to be isolated there in their rooms.
There's concern that kids aren't developing the kind of social skills needed because there's less face-to-face interaction. Kids aren't really learning free play and working things out with the kids on the block because you're all playing outside. They're getting less exercise. And then questions would be: What else can parents do? I have some thoughts on that, but Marco what do you want to say about the role of parents with regards to this entire issue of cyberbullying?
Marco Ciappelli: Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is a question that I ask many times, and it's not only referring to parenting or teachers and kids, it's about cybersecurity in any other environment, from corporate to small business. If you own a home where all the gadgets are connected, and it is not just the computer, it's a lot of other connected things. These tools do come with a lot of benefits, but they also come with a lot of risks. The question is "who is going to educate the educators?" Because it comes down always to knowledge, and knowledge is giving you the power to make decisions and to decide about a course of actions. My fear, which somehow you're already confirming, is that the parents that are supposed to be the ones educating the kids, the teachers that are supposed to educate the kids, do not know about these issues themselves, and so how can they teach something they do not know about?
Dr. Scott Poland: Well, you raised some great questions, and I would argue that it takes a village. This is a shared responsibility between schools and parents; and to be honest, schools are pretty overwhelmed. They often lack resources. They are very well-meaning. They have the state accountability tests, and, unfortunately, digital citizenship, as far as I know, there's not anything being measured on any scalability test. However, as we keep moving forward, I think it would be a wonderful thing to add.
So, most typically, there'll be like a classroom presentation or maybe a school assembly to talk about citizenship online, talk about safety, talk about how easy it is for a message to be miscommunicated, and how you didn't really say what you meant. One-time things aren't going to do it. That's why this Common Sense Media curriculum, and something that should be done every year and takes into account kids’ developmental differences, is important. The other thing, though, that I do find, is that schools have technology experts, and I like to hear from them when there's a parent meeting. Here is the technology expert for the district giving the guidance, sharing information about the latest social media sites that are concerning, etc.
Now, if we go back to parents, the problem is that most parents are viewing their 11-year-old as the computer and internet guru. And that means they're probably not getting the full story from their child. And aren't there some basic things in our homes about location? See, I'm not really a fan of a laptop.
If someone were to say, "I have a 13-year-old daughter. I'm going to get her a laptop that has the camera in it." You can imagine what I'm going to say because sexting has been a tremendous problem, and most young girls, they're resistant, but sometimes, unfortunately, they give in, they send the picture, and it spreads all over school. The result is in tremendous taunting, teasing, and harassment.
So I like the desktop that sits on the kitchen counter, and then if a kid keeps erasing the history trail, it's like we need to have a conversation. And then we need technology-free bedrooms, and we need technology-free cars. Now I acknowledge that navigation systems are incredible, but that means it can only be voice-activated because sadly there are a lot of tragedies and car accidents that the distractibility of the technology led to.
I mentioned to you earlier there's a pretty fabulous and innovative documentary that's called "Screenagers." The Screenagers documentary is saying something like this: Kids spend six and a half hours on technology every single day. Well, that means a lot of other things that are important don't get done. Many kids are really proud of their multi-tasking. For example, my wife was a principal for many years. The parents come into the high school and say, "My kid had six hours of homework last night." Well, they might have been appearing to do homework for six hours, but the bulk of that time was spent messaging their friends. The research actually says we may feel good about our multi-tasking, but we don't have a good perception. We don't do so well when we multi-task.
The modeling in our homes is incredibly important. I often speak with the mom who says, "You know, I wanted all the technology off at mealtimes, but it was my husband. He couldn't wait even 20 minutes without being on his devices." The key point I recommended last week was that ... I had parents there, elementary through high school. Well, high school kids are already in a certain pattern. It’s not like dad walks home, "Hey, I heard this presentation tonight so from now on you're only on your devices 90 minutes a day." That doesn't make sense when your kids are used to pretty much unlimited, unsupervised time. Let's talk with our teenagers. Let's get them involved. Let's understand why the technology is so important to them, and let's get their input on a usage or plan about technology. Because, to be honest, I'm afraid that in many families the members aren't even talking to each other. Everybody is just in their own world and on their devices.
Marco Ciappelli: Yes. Well, one thing is for sure, the times have changed a lot. When you're talking about all this limited time in front of technology, you talk about the desktop instead of a laptop. But it’s not just a problem with laptops; you’ve got the iPod, you’ve got the tablets, you’ve got the smartphone; there are so many ways that you can get online. Now we have even Alexa, and Siri, and all the personal assistants in the house. On one side, experts like you, and I agree with you, advise using less technology, going back to the good old days of hanging with kids of your age and playing soccer - I grew up in Italy - that's what we used to do, run around, and engage in other activities.
On the other hand, nowadays, we have - unfortunately - a society that is hyperexcited about everything that is technology, everything that is internet connected. We are at the point where we are connecting a salt shaker to the internet, and I still have to understand what the utility is of that, plus the refrigerator and toaster and webcams and everything else. People put these things in their homes, and they are not aware that there are side effects to those things, which is the cybersecurity, the privacy issue, the tracking. You would think that kids should be educated in regard to the risks. The problem is that the parents themselves do not know about the risks. What I'm trying to say is that I think there is not enough of this kind of information and conversations in our society. So we can point a finger to the parents and say that they need to educate their kids, but sometimes, I think they don't even know about these issues so how can they teach about something that they are not aware of?
Dr. Scott Poland: Well, you've raised many good points, and parents are raising children today in very challenging times for lots of reasons. There's certainly a lot of pressure on kids, all of the technology and the instant access to so many things. In fact, I might argue that in some ways it's causing kids maybe to grow up too fast, to be exposed to things that they are not ready for. And this is really what's behind some of the movement for homeschooling. People are moving to rural areas. And there are still parts of this country where you basically can't get online, and that's attractive to some people, but there are also so many advantages, and some of them are social.
You know, looking back on it, there were many times when I was an adolescent that, hey, I thought we were all supposed to meet here. But nobody's there, and you never find them, because there was no way to communicate. There are so many wonderful educational opportunities, but all of these things just have to be monitored.
And here is the kind of questions I get: "I'm the parent of twin 10-year-old boys. I try to monitor where they go on the internet, but every night I have to put their 2-year-old sister to bed. Do you think I should block some sites?" And the bottom line is yes. My answer is yes.
Or the mom who says, "I'm thinking about getting my daughter an iPhone, but I'm not so sure I want her to have 24-hour internet access." And I look at her and I say, "Wow, how old was I when I actually got internet access on my phone? I was 56. Why does your daughter need a cell phone at all? You drop her off at school. You pick her up. Why does she need a cell phone at all?"
So I think part of the message is developmental. Don't be in a hurry. All of this needs to be carefully thought out. I hope in our schools, in our churches, in our community centers, there's discussions and information for parents to help them keep up. The other day I was reading about, I guess it's called a super router, and the ability to monitor everything happening with the Wi-Fi in our home now. Xfinity had a great commercial: mom's bringing dinner to the table; kids and her partner are all on their phones. She pushes a button, and everybody's connection just got paused.
In a presentation in Missouri a couple of weeks ago a guy comes up to me and he says, "Every time we have a meal together" – and you know, obviously, not that many years ago, there were like seven meals together, every dinner, every night. To be honest, I think that's probably unrealistic in today's world, but Tuesday/Thursday nothing interferes with dinner, everybody’s around the table. And what he said was, that there's a question for discussion every dinner, and it's a question that everybody can weigh in on whether you're seven or whether you're seventeen. And wouldn't technology, discussion of the positives and negatives, a conversation about "screen time," wouldn't that be a wonderful thing for everybody who listens to this podcast to bring up around their dining room table with everybody's devices off? Let's talk about this. Let's make sense of this. Make sure that we're all doing reasonable things so that the technology doesn't take over our lives.
I'm currently going to be working on a cyberbullying curriculum for Vector Solutions, and I've already worked on a bullying curriculum. These have to do with schools, and schools need to step up. It's not okay anymore to say, "Well, hey, that happened over the weekend." By the way, often things blow up at school on Mondays. There's a lot of drama. School officials are going to say it's a slippery slope, but we have to get involved because cyberbullying affects learning, which is the primary purpose of education.
Marco Ciappelli: It seems to me that we started with the importance of education, and we are ending again with that. Education and conversation. As a society, we need to get involved, as parents, as partners, as friends, as professionals. If we expect technology to fix our problem, our societal problem, we are heading for failure, because we need to step in and have this conversation.
I think that when you talk about people sitting at a table, a family, and parents being parents, then you're not only talking about what you've done during the day, how the day went at school; but you can also bring up this problem related to how you are using that technology. I mean you need to teach your kids about not being a bully. I grew up with a grandfather that, from the day I could understand what he meant, he said to me: "Just don't do to others what you don't want to be done to yourself." And now I'm 48 years old, and every day, at least once a day, I use that advice; and I think it's essential, but if you don't talk to your parents, if you don't talk to your kids, how are you going to learn or teach them to be good people? And that goes for offline as well as online.
Dr. Scott Poland: Absolutely. We've got to have these conversations, the modeling from the parents’ discussion, time limits, getting the input from our children about what they think is reasonable. It's a shared responsibility between young people and all the adults in their lives, at home, at school, and in the community.
Marco Ciappelli: And we live in a cyber society. I mean we can't deny it, we are already in the future. The truth is that all of a sudden we woke up one morning and we are in that society, so there is no better time than now to talk about this and make plans. Do you have one or two actionable tips that you can give to the parents and teachers that are listening to us, to start this conversation and maybe a few steps to help to prevent bullying?
Dr. Scott Poland: Parents need to really sit down with their children, talk about technology; and, as I said earlier, it is a privilege, it's not a right. But also talk with them about the very thing you said from your grandfather, about it's really about kindness, it's about if it's going to be hurtful we don't say it, nor do we post it online. And if children are not managing the technology well, there need to be some consequences. They don't have to be severe, but the technology could be taken away for a period of time, monitored more closely. I think it's really about the conversation, setting limits. I often find that kids who are only nine years old, it's like they've been handed the keys to the car with regards to technology. But they aren't ready for it, so it's about education and supervision.
Marco Ciappelli: And I entirely agree. Thank you so much for being part of this episode of the cyber society. These are the kind of conversations that we need to have more and more. So, thank you very much.
Dr. Scott Poland: My pleasure.