As a child, I was taught that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. The truth is that society has changed. However, our mainstream education and societal training practices have not. The future of American society depends on our ability as parents, educators, edtech professionals and legislators to collaboratively teach our children that words actually do matter.
By definition, civility is a polite act or expression. As written by Jennifer Frey, associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, “Civility is a virtue that strikes a mean of action between two extremes that must be avoided: displaying lack of respect for others as equal participants in some society, on the one hand, and being overly ingratiating towards them, on the other.” The erosion of civility has directly led to an erosion of the society’s ability to engage in respectful, truthful and productive dialogue despite our differing opinions.
Public opinion polls show the magnitude of the challenge. A poll published by the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service earlier this year reported that 43 percent of America’s voters believe politics in our country are less civil since President Biden took office. Voters blame the COVID-19 crisis, with two-thirds surveyed saying politics has gotten worse since the start of the pandemic.
But incivility is not just a problem in the political arena, and it doesn’t only affect adults. In an earlier public opinion poll by Weber Shandwick, “Civility in America 2019,” 68 percent of Americans believed that incivility was a major problem—an increase of 3 percent since 2010. When asked about the top 10 consequences of incivility, 89 percent of respondents mentioned online bullying/cyberbullying. Defined by the Social Media Victims Law Center as the use of electronic communication to harass, threaten or humiliate someone, this kind of incivility affects the health and well-being of children. Back in 2018, Pew Research Center found that 59 percent of U.S. teens had been bullied or harassed online, and while one may believe that cyberbullying declined during the pandemic, research suggests the harassment remained stable.
Kids and teens are exposed to cyberbullying in large part through social media. According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of parents in the U.S. say parenting is harder today than it was 20 years ago, with many citing technologies like social media or smartphones as a reason. The New York Times reported this spring that children as young as 8 years old are using social media more than ever. The article highlighted a study published by Common Sense Media in March that found that, during the pandemic, average daily screen use for children ages 8 to 12 rose to five and a half hours, and for children ages 13 to 18 it rose to more than eight and a half hours. Such significant online engagement has placed children on the frontlines of the most volatile consequences of incivility.
Now, more than ever, it is imperative that our communities come together and say that enough is enough. And organizations have started to address these problems. One of them is the National Institute for Civil Discourse, founded in 2011 by the University of Arizona following the Tucson shooting that killed six people and wounded many others, including former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The institute provides resources to advance society’s ability to effectively engage in our differences more constructively.
The following are two recommendations for consideration in addressing this public crisis:
Teach civility and digital civility in K-12 classrooms throughout the country.
Previously, I wrote that in order to address the debt crisis being experienced in American society, financial literacy education must be taught in mainstream K-12 education. Well, here is another topic that I firmly believe must be taught in mainstream K-12 education: civility and digital civility.
Resources are available from organizations like the Megan Meier Foundation, founded by Tina Meier in 2007 after her daughter Megan took her own life following a cyberbullying hoax, and the David’s Legacy Foundation, which works to eliminate cyberbullying through education, legislation and legal action.
Teach civility and digital civility in college and university settings.
While there has been ample research regarding the effects of cyberbullying on children and adolescents, the topic, in comparison, is less discussed among those who are college-aged.
The University of California at San Diego developed the Office for the Prevention of Harassment & Discrimination to educate its community about bias, harassment and discrimination and to resolve related incidents in a fair and responsible manner. The site provides resources to aid institutions of higher education in bringing awareness to and addressing harassment and discrimination, including cyberbullying.
Each of us has a responsibility to address the needs of our society and respective communities. It is my sincere hope that together, we can bring about the change necessary to ensure a productive and civil future for society.