Tuesday, December 31, 2013



It cannot all be blamed on the Internet.
Parents really need to step up and into their children’s lives.




(Tuesday December 31, 2013 Anytown, USA)   This is the time of year when every news media outlet, magazine, publication and tabloid rate the best and worst of the year just about to be concluded.  TIME magazine names their “Person of the Year” and there are endless lists and ranking of trends, fads and milestones in pop culture and our society as a whole. There are seemingly endless lists of winners and losers, of those to watch in the upcoming year and those that imploded in the one about to end. Some lists rate the best and worst news photos, defining moments in national and world events, politics, fame and infamy. There are no stones left unturned in this oddball subjective annual craze.  From top notch sports teams and individual athletes, to journalists, politicians and, of course, that uniquely American breed that is considered “celebrity” for no apparent reason other than earning the ersatz tiara of celebrity. This is a ritual practice and often sheds light on some aspects of our lives and times that would otherwise remain unnoticed by the majority.  Typically, The Brooding Cynyx refrain from this annual ritual compiling lists of Best This and Worst That and have generally avoided getting caught up in the muck and mire, the hype and hyperbole that others in the media seem to thrive on when it comes to quantifying, qualifying, critiquing, assessing and summarizing.

But this year is a bit different for us; this last twelve months have brought us events and stories that have compelled us to affix a label to 2013: we have designated it “The Year of the Bully”.  This year has been tragically wrought by far too many stories of young lives destroyed, ruined and taken due to bullying.   Technology and all its unintended consequences contribute to and add a level of stress in the lives of our teens never before possible.  Now awkward adolescent moments can be caught on a cell phone camera and Tweeted, texted and shared in a truly viral form reaching an audience of dozens or hundreds within minutes.  These moments are forever alive in whatever digital devices they have traveled though, the “social networks” that facilitate their spread and, in what becomes for many, the loss of the ability or means to defend themselves. 


In his brilliantly written 2001 book “Wireless Nation”, James B. Murray, Jr tells the fascinating story of the cell phone industry in America having been involved in it for over two decades, the time that took a concept that many in the communications and technology fields said was not viable, to the full out bandwidth wars between the “telcom” carriers. In the 1980’s one would have been hard pressed to find any serious support from investors for a national cellular network.  Most of the heavy hitters in the industry from AT&T to a number of venture-capital backed startups simply lacked the vision to see beyond the familiar horizon.  Those that had that foresight and vision took cellular communications technology from a small novel gadget accessible only to the very rich and nurtured it into what it has become today; a global force that has even defied “Moore’s Law” regarding the exponential growth of digital capacity.  Cell phones have come a long way from their brick-like clumsiness of the late 1980’s into ultra-slim, lightweight, miniature computers with a broad array of capacities and applications.  Cell phones have come to replace “landlines” in each of the last 4 years at a rate near 40% annually.  Cellular is now the standard, now the norm.

But, as we have seen time and time again, the Law of Unintended Consequences is as embedded in our sophisticated technologies just as are the nano-sized silicon chips that make them operate as they do. Virtually every cell phone today has a camera built in and, with the explosive rise of “social networks” in just the last six years our connectivity has exceeded everyone’s wildest imaginations from the engineers behind the hardware and software, the carriers, investors and this connectivity has forever changed the world in which we live.  Cellular technology has “downsized” the Earth.  With the proper equipment, either a cell or satellite phone, there is nowhere on the planet that is too remote to not be accessible.  So too is it that even within the realm of proximity there is a connectedness that no one could have truly anticipated and is just now beginning to be understood on many levels.

We are all aware of what is happening in this regard.  No matter where we live or work, how we commute or communicate, cellular technology is ubiquitously obvious, often intrusively so, in America today.  This reality is particularly evidenced in our children, adolescents and teenagers all seem to be forever listening through ear buds to music while texting and Tweeting friends that might be as close as the next table in the cafeteria.  Through the social networks they are tethered to each other and can share anything from simple messages and video clips, to “selfies”, games and any of the over 400,000 apps now available for cell phones, sleek multiuse “pads” and “tablets” as well as the growing array of other hybrid miniaturized digital devices.

All of this advanced technology has created platforms for new ways to bully, embarrass, harass, tease, taunt and otherwise ridicule anyone.  As if being a teenager wasn’t already sufficiently laden with the awkward, often difficult process of maturing, socialization and taking the first small steps into hormonally-charged new vistas of fear or desire or identity, now anyone else, a classmate, neighbor or stranger on the subway, can document it moment by moment and share it for all the world to see if they so choose.  Any awkward moment, any mistake, miscue or misstep that every teen has ever made, can be captured for posterity’s sake or posted on YouTube for the enjoyment of others.  Total strangers are interacting via social networks in truly “viral” ways that are more susceptible to be malignant than benign.  What one person finds embarrassing can be viewed a virtually unlimited number of others on the small cellphone screens they appear to be riveted to despite what other activity they may be involved in.

Up until this new digital age the pitfalls and pains of the teen years where witnessed only by those in real proximity, in real time, in the actual physical presence of each other.  Then all a teen had to worry about was being the brunt of a joke, being humiliated for a few days on the school bus or just forced to suffer from the cruel exclusionary - inclusivity practiced by teenagers probably since time immemorial. Whatever the clumsy moment or prank played, its effects never transferred further than your neighborhood, school or immediate peers. The high school years are notoriously perilous and each of us either looks back on them with wistful pleasure or grinding anger or something in between.   But to have our lives open to a cruel sort of chroniclization is more than some teens can handle.


Our technology is here to stay, there is no going back.  That some of our advancement in technology has created some fallout is not a broad condemnation.  It is merely stating the obvious, an after effect that can linger dangerously in cyberspace and have a detrimental influence on our children during their most formative and impressionable years. Is our “culture” or society to blame?  Can we pin this disturbing trend of digital bullying on poor parenting skills? Broken families?  Who knows?  We do have a tendency in this country to extrapolate from the micro to the macro, from the local to the national, from the rare and isolated to the common and pervasive when it comes to looking at aspects of our lives.  In this type of thinking there are inherent flaws and unquantifiable, unidentifiable variables that obscure other perspectives.  This also allows us to jump to conclusions and proffer assumptions that serve only to further confuse and muddle the issues.

Is our “culture” partially complicit?   Yes, in some ways.  Are our children growing up more familiar with strangers on social networks than with their own Moms and Dads, brothers and sisters, kids next door?  Sure, in many cases this is reality.  The pace of our lives today is astonishingly rapid and blurrily confusing to most people over 30; perhaps even 25.  It is hard to draw a generational line that demarcates the fork in the road that shunted us all onto the “Information Highway” of President Bill Clinton’s description yet maybe that was the point of bifurcation.  My generation did not grow up with any of the sophisticated technology that was still a distant dream to futurists and some in the fields of engineering, computer science and associated disciplines in the 1950’s and ‘60’s.  We had a black and white TV, three major networks and a rotary dial phone hanging on the wall in the kitchen.  We went to libraries to get information for homework and projects, learned to type, used carbon paper and made mimeograph copies.  In high school we took chemistry, calculus and physics with a slide ruler and scratch paper.  In the simple linear nature of human and technological progress the road ahead seemed natural enough; a ride up a gently slopped gradient of advance that made our lives easier and impressed us mightily.  We put a man on the moon in 1969 with no more computing power available on the Lunar Module than in a common microwave oven of today.  We have not been back to the moon in decades however we have continually been moving forward and faster. 


There is a large vocal chorus laying all of society’s and, in particular our youths behavior on “violent” video games, graphic 3 dimensional movies filled with blood and gore and how their intimacy with these realms merge and have “desensitized” the children born during and since the 1980’s.  This is a reasonable yet not complete assertion regarding some of the emerging trends evidenced by how our youth approach and perceive the wider world. Their experiences have largely been in relationships with the digitalized parallel universe of cyberspace in all its unlimited vistas.  Certainly they are less well adapted, socialized, than we were.  Yes, their endless hours travelling the social networks, gaming sites, chat rooms, Facebook pages, web sites has desensitized them, it can be argued, as have the real life news reporting from war zones around the world. 

There appears to be the absence of a contravening force, any counterbalancing influence.  This is not the fault of the nation as a whole.  It is foolish to believe so.   And this returns us to the “extrapolation affect”.  We see a truly tragic, reprehensible news item about a school shooting and immediately the hue and cry to enact stricter gun control, screen children for mental illness or arm teachers can be heard.  When we read about teens who had been the subject of intense cyber bullying who commits suicide automatically factions on both the political Left and Right toss out their own tired rhetorical grenades hoping to score political points and further fuel the flames of divisiveness that are constantly aglow just beneath the surface.  What has become of person accountability?  Why is it always a larger “them” to blame when it was just one person or a small number of people involved in the commission of whatever the  atrocity might be? 

The Right will blame the absence of “God” in our schools for all that ail our youth while the Left will stridently call for more regulation, laws and intervention.  In both cases everyone is attempting to find the needle of causation in the haystack of a diverse and disparate population of over 400 million Americans. 

What may be a beginning remedy must take place on the micro scale; at the level of individual families.  Our children need to be taught values and that does not refer to the gauzy material once taught in civics classes and Sunday schools.  Concepts of conscience, right and wrong, winners and losers should be instilled in our children to provide a counterweight to all they are consumed with in cyberspace and in their small cliques and groups.  There is a strain of “meanness”, of callousness and cruelty throughout our culture that is naturally absorbed by those in their formative years.  We live in a violent culture but, and this is no doubt a controversial point of view but, it is not nearly as violent, all things considered, as it could be.  Yes, every crime of violence, every act of cruelty is troublesome but, given the composition of our country thins could be much worse.

Statistics and metrics are malleable.  The numbers as illustrated in graphs and pie charts assembled by scholars and ‘experts’ in a wide range of disciplines can always find numbers to support their own beliefs or their favorite theory.  Statistics as collected and analyzed for academic monographs and peer reviewed journals are notoriously flawed particularly as when they are extracted from polling data and other subjective means of acquisition.  All the “Blue Ribbon Panels”, working groups and “national debate” engaged in amounts to just so much rubbish.  We don’t need a “national dialogue” about anything even if such an activity were even possible.  We have had far too much emphasis placed beyond an individual’s immediate reach, on factors and influences that are purportedly the cause of this or the reason for that.  Again, the responsibility for our children and how they develop rests with us.  Parents, Uncles, Aunts, Grandparents, our kin should have an active role with our children and extended family.  Yes, over the years there has been much made of the “broken home syndrome” and the single Mom scenario and these are indeed the root of some problems for some of our youth.  But many a good and decent child raised by a single parent, a grandparent or even an older sibling has developed into stable well-adjusted teen “normalcy”.

Perhaps the time has come for each of us to stop looking for the causes for what disturbs us about our youth’s indifference and behavior that may be completely baffling to us.  The causes may be much closer to home; perhaps rooted within the home and it is at that level we must approach the issues.  We must teach our children well.

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