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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Cyberbullying & the dark side of 'flash mobs'

There's something Dark-Ages about Philadelphia's flash mobs – more like the digitally assisted Paris riots of 2005 than the "impromptu pillow fights in New York," as described in today's New York Times, the train-station group dancing in Europe (great example on YouTube here), and the giant, lighthearted Dupont Circle snowball fight I witnessed while stuck in snowbound Washington last month. Philadelphia's have "taken a more aggressive and raucous turn here as hundreds of teenagers have been converging downtown for a ritual that is part bullying, part running of the bulls: sprinting down the block, the teenagers sometimes pause to brawl with one another, assault pedestrians or vandalize property." City officials are considering a curfew, holding parents legally responsible for their kids' behavior, and other measures to get the situation under control the Times adds. Not everyone calls the seemingly spontaneous violence in Philly "flash mobs," and some sources the Times cites say it's due to fewer jobs for youth in a touch economy and "a decline in state money for youth violence prevention programs."

Whatever, this is, it isn't happening in a vacuum. There seems to be an increasingly uncivil, angry tinge to exchanges between people who disagree and members of opposing political parties on Capitol Hill, the airwaves, and online. Is it possible that all these adults publicly modeling disrespectful, degrading behavior are creating a new, very destructive social norm? Could cyberbullying in schools and teens' destructive behavior on city streets have something to do with that? I think so. Experts rightfully alert us to the sexually toxic culture our children are growing up in; they're also growing up in a behaviorally toxic culture and media environment. Media and technology can make mobs grow fast, but they don't create the underlying attitudes. All of which points to the critical and growing need for education in good citizenship, online and offline, and new media literacy (critical thinking not just about content, texts, and comments being consumed or downloaded, but also sent out, posted, produced, and uploaded). [See also "Social norming: So key to online safety."]

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