The Internet has given us many positive advancements, not the least of which is that I’m able to find the perfect pair of espadrilles when it’s 2 a.m. and I can’t sleep.
But among the many dubious uses of our modern connectivity is that parents now have the means to embarrass their kids in new and bigger ways.
Much has been made in the past few years about the potential for kids to bully and humiliate each other online, and certainly there’s no denying that this is a disturbing and harmful use of social media.
But lately much attention has suddenly focused on at least a handful of cases when it’s the parents that are doing the persecuting, or public shaming, as it’s called.
This new development involves the videotaping of children as they are being punished or berated by their parents for unwanted behavior, everything from skipping school to getting bad grades and wearing suggestive clothing. Videos and photos are then posted on social media websites such as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram for potentially millions of online viewers to see and share.
In one such video that has become a cause celebre, a Tacoma, Wash., father filmed his 13-year-old daughter after her long hair had been cut short ostensibly as punishment for sending a boy a racy picture. The video was posted online and went viral after the girl took her own life. Many YouTube viewers were outraged by the father’s actions, although it was revealed later that he was not the one who shared the video on the Internet and that his daughter’s suicide may have resulted from more-complex problems.
But in other recent videos that have found their way online, some other parents have made it clear that they are using the Internet to shame their kids into cleaning up their acts. In some, teenagers are seen holding signs announcing their alleged transgressions, and in others parents smash their kids’ cell phones and computers. And the hair-shearing stunt seems to have attracted some fans, including one barber who specializes in giving misbehaving youngsters ugly cuts.
On the flip side of the public shaming video phenomenon, however, is the growing penchant of modern, Internet-savvy parents to boast to the available online universe about their wonderful, special, highly accomplished kids. While this trend is arguably less fraught with potential for Shakespearean-like tragedy than online shaming, it carries a whiff of good intentions gone awry and can be damaging to children in its own right.
Both of these two-sides-of-the-same-coin developments seem to be rooted in parental instincts that can certainly evoke at least a degree of empathy. Some of the parents that have resorted to online shaming tactics have publicly expressed their desperation after trying many other ways to straighten up their children whose behavior has gone off the rails.
And parents who constantly brag about their kids online might be obnoxious, but it’s perhaps understandable that they fail to see the sometimes-blurry line that exists between occasionally crowing about a truly significant achievement and inundating social media with implicit “my-kid-is-better-than-yours” messaging.
I’d venture that all parents have had at least a few moments they aren’t proud of and would like to take back, whether it’s in the way they’ve reacted to their children’s misbehavior or an awkwardly gushing praise-a-thon. But in the age of the Internet, we now have the unfortunate side effect of making these instances of questionable judgment available to a huge audience, which in itself carries bigger implications for the effects on our kids.
“All parents are struggling for some commonality,” said Dr. Jerry Weichman, a Newport Beach psychologist and the founder of the Weichman Clinic at the Hoag Neurosciences Institute. “They’re looking for a support system.”
But parents must understand that for children — adolescents and teens in particular — self-esteem is highly fragile and social standing is everything. Embarrassing our children in front of others risks destroying their reputations and sets them up for intense ridicule among their peers that can follow them online 24/7.
Whether a parent’s intention is to change unwanted behavior or reward success, what Weichman calls an “epidemic” of over-sharing can actually have the opposite, negative effect.
It also sends kids the wrong message. When it comes to behavior modification, instead of resorting to public shaming, parents should instead consistently offer their children positive reinforcement for good deeds, teach them through their own words and actions how to be good citizens, and by all means keep disciplinary issues within the family, Weichman said.
And while praise is helpful, constantly looking for ways to share with the outside world every little favorable detail about our kids risks communicating to them that we only value them for how they make us appear to others.
Weichman said that in his work with youths, particularly in status-conscious Newport Beach, he constantly tries to reinforce that it’s not important how other people perceive them, and that true self-esteem comes from within. He also tells kids that when it comes to sports, academics, or any other pursuit, it’s not whether they performed better or worse than others that defines them, it’s how much effort they put into it that matters most.
That’s good advice for parents too.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.