Face-to-face encounters can fight gossip, cyberbullying

Gossip might be everywhere, but it does seem to flourish more in among certain groups and in certain environments — and schools and colleges full of preteens, teenagers and young adults head the list.

Schools are relatively closed environments, where people know and care enough about what other people are doing to be able to gossip about them, and young and insecure enough to worry about their own place in the social pecking order. On top of that, teens and 20-somethings spend lots of time on social media, made of networks designed to do nothing more efficiently than spread rumors.

“It certainly can spread faster and be more harmful,” said Bernard Brady, chair of the theology department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. “The problem with social media is that its impact is wider, and that many people don’t think of the ramifications before they post.”

Feeling of anonymity

Younger people also tend to use social media differently, maintaining larger circles of friends and including people they don’t know well, or maybe at all. “If they post something, it’s all over,” Brady said.

“We live in a time where people are very aware when they are being gossiped about,” said Franciscan Father Jude DeAngelo, director of campus ministry at The Catholic University of America. But they are not always so aware of when they are gossiping in a malicious way.

“It’s these twitters, these emails,” he said. “They feel like they are anonymous in this technological world, and they say things they wouldn’t say out loud.”

Lynne Lang, director of school climate for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, wrote in an essay on gossip: “Many of us grew up hearing the expression, ‘If you can’t say it to someone’s face, then don’t say it behind someone’s back!’ This age-old advice stands as a reminder not to gossip. But how can we help ourselves when it seems that everyone is doing it? Negativity abounds in the tabloids, in the bleachers at youth sporting events, among volunteers at school, in the parish, among our Facebook friends — and even with our best friends. We all find ourselves talking about other people and circumstances negatively. Simply put, this is an attack on the dignity of the human person, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: ‘Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury’”(No. 2477).

Resetting relationships

Commit to being constructive. Shutterstock

There’s no question that the matter is deadly serious, with the rate of teen suicide attempts jumping from 6.3 percent in 2009 to 7.8 percent in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (see related sidebar).

The past year has seen several news reports of teenagers committing suicide after being first sexually assaulted or abused, and then having images or information about their assaults posted online.

“Cyberbullying is the result of a need for a more loving face-to-face encounter in our schools and neighborhoods,” Lang said. Adults need to set an example, especially in parishes and schools.

“The school parking lot cannot be a place to lodge complaints against school personnel or other school families if we are to keep our doors open,” Lang said. “Telling someone their help is not needed as a volunteer, or criticizing someone simply will not win hearts over for Christ, nor keep our churches open.”

Focused on the Lord

Father DeAngelo said people young and old must focus more on their relationship with the Lord than on what other people think, including taking time to understand the gifts and talents the Lord gave them.

“I do think people need to be more convinced of their gifts,” he said.

The media age has exacerbated the problem, he said, with rumors moving across the Internet and around the world at the speed of light. “Christ calls us to something greater than that,” Father DeAngelo said.

When he talks with young people who have been hurt by gossip, Father DeAngelo said he finds they have two issues to think about. “One is, ‘How do I live in this situation that is hurtful? How do I survive this?’ Second, you look at, ‘Are these my friends? Maybe I need to be about choosing better friends.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.

How to Teach Children Not to Be Gossips
3. Share positive results. Pope Paul VI, in Evangelii Nuntiandi (“On Evangelization in the Modern World”), said “evangelizing means bringing the Good News of Jesus into every human situation and seeking to convert individuals and society by the divine power of the Gospel itself.” When we remember to be constructive regarding others in our community, even in difficult circumstances, we bear the fruit of living a virtuous life, Lang said. “Perhaps someone apologizes for something that was said against a brother or sister. Maybe you changed someone’s mind to respond more positively in a seemingly hopeless situation. If you choose to be a positive force in a committee, perhaps others want to be on your committee because it is more enjoyable. These are the kinds of everyday miracles that bring God into everyday life.”