Chain Mail Bullying

Bob Ditter
January 2018

Dear Bob,

I am checking in with you about a particular current situation to see if you know of any developed resources or guidelines for positive online interactions for early-teens. We have a group of 12- and 13-year old boys who have started a text string online and are struggling a bit. There is a certain irony in the fact that the connections with summer friends become so strong that their desire to keep in touch after camp leads them directly to the ease and challenge of technological communication. I often discuss with parents that the reason we don’t allow technology in camp is so our kids can learn, face-to-face, how to communicate in positive and authentic ways and then take those skills back home and use them in their online communication and relationships. Because of this current situation and others like it, we are beginning to discuss creating a more hands-on approach during the summer regarding how our campers might make that transition more successfully, rather than just assuming that the authentic and mutually respectful relationships they create at camp transfer to their relationships back home.

There is some cyberbullying going on in this string. It also appears that this is the first online experience like this for many of the boys involved. A couple parents have brought it to our attention. Rather than just inform parents of the situation, we would like to help guide the boys and their families in the right direction with some resources. So far, we have found a lot of general information about the need for such guidance and some oversimplified guidelines, but nothing we feel is comprehensive enough to be able to send out to the families as a resource that we are suggesting will help them guide their sons online. We’ll end up writing something up on our own soon if we don’t find anything, but I wanted to see if you had run across anything useful, maybe in the same vein as your useful little staff book of guidelines. I still pull that out on occasion, although I have internalized most of it by now.

Clay Colvig, Executive Director
Colvig Silver Camps
Durango, CO

Dear Clay,

What you are describing is indeed happening at camps all around the country. I receive many messages from camp professionals about various kinds of inappropriate or hurtful online activities among campers. To your question about a set of guidelines for early teens about respectful or appropriate online etiquette, I don’t know of any such guide. I wonder if Catherine Steiner-Adair’s book on technology and the family might be a place to look (The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age). I would take a special look at Chapter 6, “Teens, Tech, Temptation, and Trouble: Acting Out on the Big (and Little) Screen” (Steiner-Adair & Barker, 2014).

Aside from providing a guideline for parents about how to talk to their children about their online activities, I do think it is a great idea to meet with campers as camp comes to a close and talk with them in small groups about what they love about their camp friendships and how they might want to preserve those friendships after camp. This is the context in which to raise the specter of social media, such as Snapchat, Instagram, and so on. Campers are more likely to think ahead about how they might want to hold onto the great feelings of trust and respect they have developed at camp if they are given the opportunity to reflect on just how special those feelings are when they are still together with their friends.

Let me address specifically the boys you reference in your email. A man named David Steindl-Rast once said that “ethics is how we behave when we decide we belong together.” Once we don’t believe we belong to one another anymore, our ethical behavior deteriorates. I suspect that the cyberbullying you are seeing in the boys’ chat group is the result of the sense that they are disbanded, even as they try to stay connected electronically. What I suggest you do now is either have a conference call (I am assuming these boys live at great distances that would prevent them from actually meeting face-to-face) or create a Zoom video event (see zoomvideo.com) where the boys can reestablish their connection, revisit the things that made them feel close as a group to begin with, and then talk about how they can regain and preserve that special feeling of closeness they developed at camp. I think once the boys see one another (even if electronic “seeing” is not as powerful or immediate as in-person “seeing”), they can establish their own guidelines — how they want to behave with one another — in the context of their friendships. As for the hurt they may have caused one another in their electronic chain mail, remember that it is always better to start with strength and then address transgressions later.

Sexual Misconduct in the News and Camp

I would be remiss as a camp trainer and advocate if I did not mention the plethora of stories in the news since early October 2017 where multiple people — men and women — have come forward with stories of having been harassed, fondled, groped, or otherwise mistreated, threatened, and shamed by men. What is clear about all of these stories is that it is mostly men acting badly with people over whom they have significant power. This kind of behavior is not defined by political persuasion, religion, ethnicity, or any factor other than the power difference between the perpetrator and the victim. That power difference might be defined by money, fame, status, or position, but it all comes down to offenders using their power to take advantage of people over whom they have influence, authority, or dominance. What, you might ask, does any of this have to do with camp?

As camp professionals, we all hold a certain kind of power with respect to both our campers and our staff. Many of our counselors admire us and look to us for guidance, support, and mentoring. As we often like to say in the world of camp, we are role models. The young people with whom we work look to us for clues about what a life of gratitude, kindness, and respect for others — a life driven by positive human values — looks like. This is a privileged and sacred position. As with any power, it can be used for great good or it can be used to inflict shame and terrible damage on others.

Camp has often been what many young people call their “safe place.” That we are in a position as camp professionals to have significant influence over those young people is a blessing that comes with tremendous responsibility — the responsibility to do right by those young people. What is true for us is equally true for our counselors. No matter their age or background, counselors hold enormous power over their campers. By virtue of their status, mobility, position, and the simple fact that they are often revered by their campers, staff hold a position that is sacred. It is the opportunity to be with other people’s children and have significant influence over how those children see and treat themselves and others. We would do well to remind our staff — and ourselves — of the sacred trust given to us by parents, and the privilege and responsibility that comes with that trust. As awful as the news of such widespread misconduct is, if it gives us pause to remind ourselves and our staff of our role as a positive force for good in the world of children, it might bring about some grace in this otherwise sordid arena.

Reference

Steiner-Adair, C. & Barker, T. H. (2014). The big disconnect: Protecting childhood and family relationships in the digital age. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.


Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. For more information about the author, visit BobDitter.com. In the Trenches is sponsored by Easy Street Insurance, Inc.