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Snowflakes on the tundra

Social media bullying a damaging prospect
Stewart Burnett is editor of Kivalliq News. Photo courtesy of Stewart Burnett

Discussion of Pink Shirt Day and bullying is sometimes met with the refrain that people are softer these days – ‘snowflakes.’

It’s perceptible that people are indeed ‘softer’ in the last decade than previously, but I think it only makes sense considering our threats are greater: social media has provided a frightening landscape for bullying to run amok.

When the ‘snowflake’ narrative was first emerging, I initially agreed that people were overly troubled by any sort of conflict, perhaps that school had sheltered them to the point they’d struggle ‘in the real world.’

Though there may be some truth to that, I now agree that the modern ‘real world’ is a scary place, in a very new way.

At any moment, we could look down at our phone and see our life imploding. Perhaps someone spreads a rumour about you, sends messages of threats or publicly criticizes your work performance. The prospect of a panic attack is in the palm of our hand, almost all the time.

When social media first started taking hold, the dawn of messaging over phone calls was a welcome relief to many an introvert. Now, though, it’s all-consuming. There is no break from the messages, emails and notifications. Now, you can’t unwind in peace and browse the internet, because a tap away are five messages you haven’t replied to, an email you’ve left for a week and whatever other bills and stresses. Your only reprieve is sleep and other forms of unconsciousness.

This feeling is pervasive, and it has affected me and my photography too. Though I strive to publish photos I think are good, perhaps someone in them supremely despises how they look, and perhaps their friend shares it as a joke. Perhaps the subject of the photo wakes up to their heart sinking, day ruined already, embarrassed by the photo I took. That thought has kept me up several nights.

Would that person be ‘soft’ for being upset at a photo of themselves, captured legally, at a public event? Maybe. But maybe that was the last thing they needed in their life, on top of their already-overwhelming list of problems. I wouldn’t want to cause that for others, and just as it damaged them, it would make my own heart sink.

Our collective mental health seems more fragile in the social media era, and more fragile still post-pandemic. Though we can commune about ‘the good old days’ and scoff at social media’s impacts and those affected by them, there’s a strong case that today is actually tougher than back then and we deserve compassion.

Back then, if we did something embarrassing, it was a joke at school for a few days, maybe a week or two. Now, it might have been captured and posted online for millions to see, forever. Once the genie’s out of the bottle on the internet, it’s just about impossible to put it back in. There are many people who made a mistake in life, went viral for it, got roasted by the internet and now find their careers and reputations damaged beyond what a fair punishment should be for whatever they did – tasteless jokes being the most common slight. There’s no running away anymore – your mistakes are now your permanent shadow.

As adults, we can use Pink Shirt Day as a reminder of the bullying potential in our pocket. The next time we see a dogpile on Facebook, we can speak against it, ignore or report it. We can offer private messages of support to the victim. Maybe they did something so wrong that outrage is entirely justified – still, do we have to add to it? Don’t we all make mistakes? We don’t need public pillories for every transgression.