Monday, June 16, 2008

More thoughts on the "emo" and "social networking" youth moral panic

Another tragic teen suicide that's vaguely related to emo and the Internet, another round of reporters writing bad articles that will actively contribute to the problem prompting all their hand-wringing.

The teenager this time is Sam Leeson. He was a thirteen year old who hanged himself. The Daily Mail reports that he was an "emo teen" who got bullied for it, and proceeds to list Blink-182 and Good Charlotte as examples of emo bands that he liked. They have the decency to list the Foo Fighters and Slipknot as "alternative" rather than "emo" at least, so it's nice to know they're trying to classify emo music accurately, even if they do fail. Blink-182, emo? People will be trying to say that Nirvana counts as emo music at this rate...

There's been plenty of pushback against bad reporting on emo in the media, with sites like Alterophobia springing up, and protests happening, of all things. The Daily Mail article is thus somewhat muted compared to its earlier dire warnings about the "emo suicide cult", as others have noted. It would be nice to think that this easing off on blaming emo would translate into thoughtful reporting, of a type that doesn't involve seeking a convenient scapegoat to account for deep-seated social problems being expressed in the attitude of teens towards each other and themselves, but that wouldn't sell papers now, would it? All attention is turned instead towards the other scapegoat that inevitably appears in these stories: the Internet, and the youth province of social networking sites.

Sam Leeson had an account on Bebo. From Bebo blamed for 13-year-old boy's death. Sam's mother "has blamed Bebo, a teenage social network similar to MySpace, for her son's death, and demanded a crackdown on websites that allow cyberbullies to target other users."

Unhelpfully, people in the comments section of this article at Mashable find it bemusing that someone could kill themselves just over cyberbullying, flat out saying that it shows Sam had something seriously wrong with him that the parents should have noticed...somehow. One goes so far as to say that "The parents should be charged with murder for allowing this clearly sick child to get on the computer for chatting at all!"

Some of this attitude is somewhat understandable given that certain facts did not appear in the media reporting. One such fact is the existence of offline bullying of Sam Leeson: claims that Sam "had been bullied by Severn Vale pupils particularly on the bus", that students from another school "apparently threatened him to kill himself, or they would kill him". The bullying was both offline and online. Why is it only the online bullying whose existence gets acknowledged?

Well...from Digital Journal:"Sam’s parents didn’t realize that he suffered from bullying until they checked his Bebo page after his death". Think about this. His parents didn't know about ANY bullying, both offline and online, until they found online evidence of it.

The Internet has changed things, but not in the way that people getting all hysterical about the "new menace" of cyberbullying claim. All that's happened is that the bullying which has always been there is now much more readily visible to the people who ought to be concerned with it. "Cyber-bullying" is not a new form of bullying. It is not threatening in some unspecified way that "real" bullying is not. It is just the extension of it into an online environment. Nothing more, nothing less.

The problem, then, is not Evil Emo Music[tm], or Evil Internet[tm]. The problem is what it has always been: the existence of bullying. What's changed is not its prevalence, but its visiblity. This could be seen as an opportunity, should people concerned with the issue be willing to take it. It is such a shame that they are proving unwilling or unable to do so.

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