I've been trying to figure out what to say about bullied bus monitor Karen Klein for four days now -- just watching the viral video of her being bullied to tears by middle-school students in New York last week left me so discombobulated I could barely speak.
The boys' vile, relentless verbal attack of her, I finally realize, feels like the personification of every Internet troll I've ever run into online. I've seen horrible personal attacks from anonymous (and sometimes not) posters that had the exact same tenor, and seen commenters gang up in the exact same way, while gaining strength and bravado hiding behind their keyboards. Watching the video, I felt like I was watching a horrible thread come to life before my eyes. An IRL, in-your-face version of people tripping all over themselves to try to be the meanest. These kids weren't shielded by the web, weren't at all removed from their subject. They were acting with such brazen cruelty, one would think they thought they were anonymous. But they weren't, and not only did they not care, they were recording the attack to brag about it, too.
There are many questions to be raised here -- and just as many lessons to be learned. How did this situation evolve? Was this the culmination of months of this kind of treatment? Was it so loud that the bus driver couldn't hear what was going on and help intervene? How do these kids treat other kids? How could these kids treat anyone this way?
Obviously, this whole horrible situation is a catalyst for a "don't treat people this way" conversation with our kids. And it should obviously create some empathy -- how you would you feel if someone talked to you like that? To one of your family members?
But I think we'd be remiss if we didn't take the opportunity to remind our kids -- and really, everyone -- to treat people kindly online, too, to remember that you might have a great one-liner or zinger you think is just perfect. But the person you are aiming it toward is as real as Karen Klein in that video, that even if you are shielded by anonymity when you say something terrible to someone online, the target is just as vulnerable, just as raw, as if they are sitting in the bus seat across from you.
It isn't right to talk to anyone this way, in any context, in any means, in any media. Ever.