School fights about forging identity
Problem is psychological, deeper than being foolish on the Internet, experts say
High school fights are as old as high schools themselves, but filming them expressly for social media is relatively new, and worrying. York police say it’s a trend that has been spreading quickly. Toronto police say they’ve never seen anything like it.
Two recent fights at GTA schools are the latest in a recent string of social media incidents involving young people that have left many wondering what exactly is going on with such a supposedly digitally savvy population.
“You say to a young person who’s done something really stupid, ‘What were you thinking?’ And they answer, ‘No, I wasn’t really thinking,’ ” said York University professor Debra Pepler.
The psychology expert studies bullying, aggression and violence in youth. She says the problem is deeper than kids being stupid on the Internet.
Many youth, especially teenagers, have struggled to fully understand the consequences of their actions, Pepler says, because of the way their brains are developing.
“Their brains are reorganizing and their thinking processes aren’t as strong as they were even when they were a bit younger,” she said.
“There’s also a lot of research about reinforcing deviance in young people,” she says, “that they really encourage each other if they have antisocial values.”
Add to that the immediacy and reach of social media, and you have a very combustible mix, Pepler said.
Neighbours who saw the street fight in York Region near Cardinal Carter two weeks ago say carloads of teens were showing up in a co-ordinated manner, all ready to see — and film — a fight. At its height there were upwards of 50 students in the street, many wielding cellphones, neighbours said. The same behaviour happened near Sir Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate in Scarborough in November after students there filmed two of their classmates getting jumped and badly beaten.
Students there call their fight-video trend Friday Night Fights. Three students were charged with assault causing bodily harm following the November attacks.
The second video of the Cardinal Carter fight, showing the 52-year-old father being severely beaten by a group of teens, has since appeared on the popular fight video site WorldStarHipHop, where it has been viewed 1.4 million times.
The student who shared the York Region fight publicly said she did so because people need to understand that these are not isolated incidents.
She goes to a different school but said fights at her high school now often have their own designated videographer.
“There was this one kid; everyone would say ‘he needs to be here for this fight. He’s the video guy,’ ” she said. “That’s how intense these things get now; they’re literally assigning kids to take videos of fights at schools. That’s ridiculous.”
York Regional Police spokesperson Const. Andy Pattenden said officers on his force are seeing similar incidents more often.
“In the case of the fights, the more disturbing trend for police is that you see all these people around with their cellphones out filming it, posting it to social media, yet no one calls police about it,” Pattenden said.
“Anyone of those people with a phone could have called 911. We could have arrived, intervened and broken up the fight, and done what’s necessary to stop it from happening.”
Neighbours who saw the Cardinal Carter street fight say they did call police, but that response time was slow. Pattenden said many York officers were busy dealing with a weapons call at a different school while the Cardinal Carter fight was happening.
High school can seem like such a blur, and for youth who are still forming their identities, the temptation to be the one with the viral video can outweigh almost all logical thought, she said.
“Identity forms in a social context,” Pepler said. “If you are wanting to enhance your identity and be seen, although it’s completely the wrong thing to do, some young people think that they’re going to get a lot of attention from this, and they often do.”
Research shows that groups of youth can easily reinforce delinquent behaviour among each other, Pepler explained, and when that group can instantly include pretty much everyone on the Internet, the consequences can be unpredictable.
Students say the videos of the fight and beating near Cardinal Carter Catholic originally started circulating in private channels as text messages and Snapchats.
The fight took place on a Friday, but it wasn’t until one student posted them publicly on the following Monday that they gained widespread media and police attention.
The distinction between public and private channels is an important one.
“I believe the one person who took the video assumed it was going to be private,” she said. “They sent it to a few people. Those people who saw it went ‘oh my god, I have to show these other people,’ ” and it spiralled out from there.
The Star is not revealing the student’s name to protect her identity. After she posted the video publicly, she received a wave of online backlash urging her to take it down.
Toronto District School Board spokesperson Ryan Bird said his board has no specific policy regarding social media.
“If you’re saying or doing something inappropriate in person or you’re doing it online, it’s still inappropriate,” he said.
The York Catholic board has what it calls “digital citizenship” embedded in its curriculum, said spokesperson Sonia Gallo in an emailed statement.
Students are taught about “what is a credible source, to communicate and respond appropriately while maintaining a positive presence online, to safely participate in an online environment and protect and respect the privacy of self and others,” the statement said.
Ontario’s province-wide curriculum also requires instruction on cyberbullying that begins in Grade 2, and includes a week every fall where bullying prevention is the main focus. But Pepler says none of this goes far enough in part because the technology changes so fast that parents and schools are being left behind.
“If we were actually going to support young people in learning how to use this and how to think about it, we’d be working on digital citizenship in kindergarten,” she said.
“We ourselves aren’t very informed about this,” Pepler said.
“And so it really requires a lot of collaborative work getting young people to inform us and to integrate it into the curriculum.”