Podcast: Clicking With Compassion in an Age of Online Cruelty

The New Normal

The foreword of Sue Scheff’s latest book, Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate, might just as well be called the “backward.” Penned by Monica Lewinsky, the foreword asks us to consider that we have created a culture of humiliation that rewards those who humiliate others. And even though we are now all connected, we’re also caught in a feedback loop of defamation and shame. This emerging shame culture, says Lewinsky, “doesn’t make value judgments on one’s actions, but instead, more insidiously, it tells people that they, as human beings, are unworthy.”

Scheff’s Introduction to Shame Nation picks up that thread with a fear-inspiring query. “Do you know, right now,” she asks, “what the Internet is saying about you? Could one careless tweet cost you your job?”

She goes on to say that in today’s digitally driven world, countless people, quite possibly including you, are being electronically attacked and embarrassed every day. Your 15 minutes of shame are lurking out there—in the form of compromising photos on your ex’s smartphone, a Yelp posting by an angry customer trashing your business, or any manner of email hacks, webcam hijackings, cyberbullying, and god-knows-what.
The author quotes statistics from the Pew Research Center that say nearly three quarters of all adult Internet users have witnessed online shaming, and that 65% of users under the age of 30 have experienced it personally. By sheer dint of pervasiveness, we are all one click away from being unwillingly thrust into an unflattering-at-best and career- or life-ending at worst digital glare.

In short, instead of harnessing the awesome (think Grand Canyon instead of mocha latte awesome) sharing power of the Internet for our collective progression toward enlightenment, we have instead largely utilized it as a low-slung engine of malice. We have become a nation of finger-waggers and thumb-typers intent on destroying our neighbor’s reputation, a horde of mean-spirited troglodytes, trolling about for our next victim.

My Boyfriend’s Back; He’s Going to Ruin My Reputation

Early on in Shame Nation, Scheff makes it clear that no one is safe from cyberhumiliation, and that upping the ante on the outrageous-approaching-absurdist variations of digital shaming has become a game of sorts. As games are designed to create conflict, so is the evolving playbook of online shame: nonconsensual porn, revenge porn, noods, slut pages, sexting scandal, sextortion, ugly polls, mean memes, elder shaming, body shaming, teacher shaming, baby shaming, and parent shaming comprise the ugly litany of devices cybershamers might use to attack YOU.

As Scheff points out, the problem is that digital ink is like an everlasting permanent marker, but far more toxic.

But Scheff isn’t just out to parade our online sins in front of us in all their smarmy, slanderous glory—throughout the book Scheff includes pithy advice in the form of “the takeaway” – one or two sentences that summarize what we can do to better cope with and react to online shaming, offset by a simple “look here” graphic, a cuffed hand with a pointing index finger.

For instance, in Chapter 2, where she tells horror stories about sexting (“the new first base,” according to a recent pediatric study) and the negative repercussions it can engender, she is careful to include adults as well as teens:

The takeaway: Even adults in a committed relationship can get tangled up in a sexting nightmare.”

"Even adults in a committed relationship can get tangled up in a sexting nightmare.” - #SueScheff
She reminds why online discretion is imperative:

The takeaway: Handle sex and tech with care; noods (Internet slang for “nudes”) gone viral are impossible to take back.”

"Handle sex and tech with care; noods (Internet slang for “nudes”) gone viral are impossible to take back.” - #SueScheff
And she comments on the ubiquitous targets of sextortionists, those who leverage embarrassing sexual content to criminally harass their victims:

The takeaway: Sextortionists can target all types, men and women, adults and teens, famous and otherwise. And you don’t have to send a nude to be a victim.”
During our interview, Scheff is also quick to offer further takeaways about the responsibilities parents can teach their kids about sexting: “It's not only important to talk to the girls about stop sending nudes and start feeling better about yourself or building your self-esteem, the takeaway there was it's about telling our boys to stop asking for them, that it's not okay to ask for them.”

Real-Life Ramifications of Digital Disasters

Scheff devotes a chapter of Shame Nation to the disastrous consequences that can befall the unsuspecting online participant and even those who consciously choose, as an act of discretion, to not create and inhabit an online persona. According to statistics quoted in Shame Nation, 92% of hiring recruiters now review a candidate’s social media profile before making a hiring decision. And a 2016 CareerBuilder survey reported that almost half of employers discovered online content that caused them not to hire the candidate. As quoted in the book, hiring managers discovered these job-killing disclosures:
  • Candidate posted provocative or inappropriate photographs or information.
  • Candidate posted information about them drinking or using drugs.
  • Candidate had discriminatory comments related to race, gender, or religion.
  • Candidate bad-mouthed their previous company or fellow employees.
And people who think it doesn’t matter to them because they don’t “tech,” or create and sustain an online web presence, are sadly mistaken. As Scheff explains in the interview, “I had a friend down in South Florida that said that she had a job for 20 years. She was married, then, all of a sudden, she got divorced, and her company closed, and she couldn't find—she was like 52 years old and couldn't find a job. But, you know what? She didn't tech. Her idea of not teching is she didn't Facebook, she didn't LinkedIn, she didn't do anything, so you couldn't find her. And this was a qualified candidate; she had an accounting degree. She did bookkeeping for a construction company. Do you know it was over nine months, and I finally convinced her to put a LinkedIn profile up, and then within 30, 60 days, she finally got a job?” It’s clear that avoidance proves to be an untenable strategy in a marketplace where a searchable identity is becoming a necessary prequalification.

Empathy to the Rescue

As Lewinsky points out in Shame Nation’s foreword, defensive responses to the onslaught of online harassment have sprung up globally, and they are informed by values of digital resilience and empathy. We need to look at ways our social behavior and emotional responses can be rethought and strengthened so we can bounce back and heal after they have been victimized by online harassment. To do that, says Lewinsky, we need “to strip away the screens and digital posturing and create a narrative steeped in empathy.”

In our interview, Scheff is even more direct about what’s required to really move forward: “We have to actually look up and over this wall of cruelty and just kill it with kindness,” she says. “It's been proven in studies time and time again, with greater empathy and compassion, it's just about impossible to leave a cruel comment or to be mean.”

Quoted throughout Shame Nation is Dr. Michele Borba, a globally recognized educational psychologist and parenting, bullying, and character expert whose aim is to strengthen children’s empathy and resilience. Reflecting on the work of Dr. Borba, Scheff writes “We can work to improve the ability to recognize emotions in others, instill a moral code to become a caring person, and learn to take on another person’s perspective.” 

Choosing a Higher Path

For all the pervasive danger that online harassment presents, Sue Scheff remains realistic but optimistic about behavioral loops and our ability to decide, both as impersonal cyber entities and live, flesh and blood human beings, to choose the higher path: “You know, hate perpetrates hate, but you know what?” she asks. “Kindness can perpetuate kindness, too. So, only choose kindness and compassion. If you're angry, click out. You know, technology can be turned off, too. So, think about that.”
And while you’re at it, give a thought to your neighbor. Whether they’re sitting in the next cube or somewhere else far across the globe, the truth today is they’re right next door.

Guest Biography

Sue Scheff is a parent advocate and author. Her latest book, Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate, written with Melissa Schorr, is the first book to both explore the fascinating phenomenon of online shaming and offer practical guidance and inspiring advice on how to prevent and protect against it. She first appeared on Unrestrained in October of 2014 when she talked about P.U.R.E. or Parents' Universal Resource Experts Incorporated, as well as her books, Wit's End: Advice and Resources for Saving Your Out-of-Control Teen and Google Bomb: The Untold Story of the $11.3M Verdict That Changed the Way We Use the Internet.