Don’t Judge Me: Lessons from the Trenches #writersgroup

I happen to be the librarian in an awesome, small, private, all girl's high school (in Quebec this means grade 7 to 11). During the first year at my job, I met a parent who happened to be a sociologist specializing in youth and technology. Although her thesis was almost done, she was happy to come and give presentations on Digital Citizenship. Her gentle, non-judgmental stance was perfect for our students. They learned  about some of the pitfalls of the internet and privacy while not feeling like they were being condemned for their use of public social media platforms.

Our beloved researcher also discovered something else: our students are confident, opinionated young women, not afraid to share their thoughts when given the opportunity. It turns out our school was an extremely ripe place for data gathering. And thus a beautiful friendship began. Our school has participated in a couple of research projects in the last few years. Each qualitative data gathering session has included fruitful dialogue with our students, conversations we could not have had in any other context.

After a few sessions, the teachers (who generously give their class time for these worthy conversations) discovered the students not only were willing to talk about issues concerning their use of social media, privacy and their take on cyber-violence, they wanted to keep talking about it. The last session we had with the researchers uncovered some extremely useful insights for me, both as a librarian working in a school, but also as a parent.

One of the most enlightening comments occurred in the very first session of our talks on cyberviolence. The girls were talking about how parents react when their kids make a mistake on social media. If they posted an inappropriate photo of themselves, or wrote a mean text that caused "drama" within their friend group (which would ricochet into the parent world), their parents' first reaction was to freak out, ban the internet, take away their privileges. Although the teens agreed that when they did do something wrong like hurt someone else some punishment was warranted, they felt their parents held it against them for too long, that it coloured the way their parents looked at them. In short, they felt like they were being judged instead of supported by their parents.

They also pointed out that the self-policing and sometimes retribution amongst their peer group was swift and exacting, way worse punishment than anything their parents could have concocted. They reminded us they were already suffering the consequences of their actions. What they needed from their parents was yes, some scolding, but mostly reassurance that their lives would not be ruined because of one transgression. They wanted the parents to tell them it would pass, that just because they made a mistake did not mean they loved their children any differently.

I know, right? Whoah. I heard this on two levels: one as the librarian who gives talks on digital citizenship and the mindful use of technology. I heard that telling the students "what goes online, stays online" needs to be accompanied with the statement "everybody makes mistakes." That they will make mistakes too. And when they do, they will learn from it and move on. It doesn't need to be the end of the world.

I also heard this as a parent of two teenage girls. Not just in terms of cyberviolence but in everything. Everybody makes mistakes. Yes, it is hard at the time. Yes, it has consequences, not just for the person making the mistakes but for everyone around them. But that is the amazing thing about being human - our ability to forgive, forget and move on.