I made the mistake a few months ago of looking at a website where students can post anonymous reviews of their teachers. Ouch. I came to school the next day with the words, "Ms. Liberatore is ridiculously horrible" seared in my mind, unable to shake that one off. I have pretty thick skin, but that comment managed to get under it and stay there for weeks. Ultimately, I chose to translate it to "she is a tough grader and doesn't take late work." I moved on.
Rating teachers is one thing, but the rising trend of high school and college students creating so called "confessions pages" on Facebook is truly troubling. Here, students post anonymous comments about anything or anyone. The pages quickly turn into places where students, under the veil of anonymity, call out other students and teachers in every kind of mean-spirited and vulgar way you might imagine and some you might not want to imagine. This kind of unfiltered behavior is aptly named "the online disinhibition effect" and it is dangerous.
If similar posts had the ability to rattle me for weeks, I could scarcely imagine the damage they might do to a 16-year-old without half the confidence and life-experience. Adolescents by nature are cloaked in uncertainty and insecurity, and these kinds of public comments can easily lead to anxiety, depression, isolation and suicide.
Our kids have become too comfortable using the Internet as a personal playground, but that gamesmanship comes at a tragically high price. There are serious ethical questions associated with calling out their peers in such a public and permanent way. I spent a whole day discussing these issues with my classes, wondering if what we really needed was a whole course. As we talked about what they thought the possible effects a single mean-spirited post might have on its target, I looked at the faces of some of those kids, my heart heavy with empathy.
There is a time and a place for anonymity, but public, permanent, anonymous forums that give people license to be mean-spirited just for the sake of it have no place where teenagers are the likely targets.