Protecting Kids from Online Hate: An Interview with Sue Scheff

by Sagar Jethani, Director of Marketing, Digital Futures Initiative

Sue Scheff‘s Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate describes the many forms online abuse and harassment can take. Herself a former victim of online abuse, Scheff writes authoritatively on topics like trolls and cyberbullying, doxxing, sextortion, webcam hijacking, and how ordinary people often derive pleasure from shaming others who they deem have violated norms of public behavior. Parents, teachers, and school resource officers are given practical advice on how children can protect themselves online, as well as what to do if you or someone you care about has already become the target of online shaming.

Sagar Jethani: You published Shame Nation in 2017. Since then, how has the situation changed for adults and kids? Have you seen any progress on the part of internet users, tech companies, or regulatory agencies when it comes to addressing and preventing these problems?

Sue Scheff: There have been significant changes. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have made it easier to report harassment. They have hired more people and are using artificial intelligence to to screen abusive content.

Jethani: Are tech companies doing a better job helping people who are being victimized on their platforms?

Scheff: Back in 2003 and 2004 it was so difficult to report abuse. When I was viciously attacked, I felt there was nothing I could do. I could report problems until I was blue in the face, and the platforms did nothing. It’s easier now to report content, flag abuse, and mute and block people who are harassing you. So I give the platforms credit for that.

Jethani: YouTube recently announced a series of changes designed to protect children on its platform. One of the biggest is to remove the comments section from videos targeted at children. What do you make of these changes?

Scheff: I think it will help. My granddaughter is on YouTube, and she could care less about reading or posting comments. I don’t think kids need to leave a comment. It’s too easy to leave a comment that is taken the wrong way.

And by removing comments, YouTube helps prevent adults from going in there who might have bad intentions.

Jethani: We’ve had trolls for almost as long as there’s been an internet. But it seems they have become emboldened in recent years to harass people out in the open, without any sense of shame.

Scheff: It has absolutely gotten worse. Despite the steps social media platforms have taken, people use the keyboard as a weapon because they don’t tend to face any consequences for their behavior. I was very fortunate to have won a defamation case in 2006, but it was—and is—extremely hard to do so. You can literally go out and call anybody whatever you want. People know that. 

Jethani: Why are people so mean on the internet?

Scheff: Technology gives bullies a much larger megaphone. It gives them a platform. So why are people so mean on the internet? Because they can be, sadly.

Jethani: It’s been three years since you published Shame Nation. Are you seeing any new trends that concern you?

Scheff: The whole “cancel culture” really bothers me. I don’t think we should call out or cancel people because they make a mistake. What might start out as a way of attacking celebrities eventually trickles down to all of us. We all make mistakes, and many of them are innocent ones.

Jethani: But the internet makes those mistakes permanent.

Scheff: Right. Maybe you can delete it, but someone has already taken a screenshot of it. Look at Kevin Hart losing the opportunity to host the Oscars for comments he made 8 or 9 years earlier. There are no do-overs on the internet. We need to pause and consider before we join into that kind of mob mentality. Are we shaming others for good? For social justice? Or is it just an excuse for us to hate?

Jethani: President Obama recently criticized cancel culture, saying that some people subscribe to “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff.” He admonished such people to get over it, saying that people who do good stuff also have flaws. 

Scheff: He’s spot-on. When activism turns into digital or civil warfare, the message will likely get lost and all people will remember is static noise. Change cannot and will not happen through this type of behavior.

Jethani: Another newer technology that we’ve seen are deepfakes, in which a person is digitally inserted into a video that makes them appear to be saying or doing something controversial or outright explicit. With the technology to produce deepfakes available to anyone, it seems this has the potential to take cyberbullying to a dangerous new place.

Scheff: Deepfake technology is frightening. It can be hard to decipher cyber fact from fiction. Deepfakes can literally navigate a person or story into something very crude or controversial, causing them humiliation and embarrassment. Ultimately, it could cause people to lose their job, their business, or their career.

Jethani: You write “Our failure to instill empathy in young people has created a culture of cruelty.” Teaching empathy is a core component of what we do at DFI. What can parents, teachers and others do to instill empathy in young people and in ourselves?

Scheff: Empathy starts at home and in the classroom. It starts offline, before kids ever get their first device. When kids see a parent open the door for someone else, that conveys a lesson about thinking of other people. When they have a teacher who stretches their ability to understand their emotions, it helps them understand the plight of others. I really follow Michele Borba’s 9 habits of empathetic kids. It’s something I reference all the time. Teaching kids empathy starts offline, long before they get their first device.

Jethani: If you wait until they go online, it’s too late.

Scheff: It’s like handing them the car keys before teaching them how to drive. Kids need to learn digital literacy before they go online.

Jethani: We have over a thousand teachers, school resource officers, parents, and others invested in raising kids to use technology safely and responsibly. Any final thoughts you’d like to share with them?

Scheff: We need to help kids find more time offline. Screen Education’s Teen Smartphone Addiction National Survey recently reported that 69 percent of kids wish they could spend more time socializing with close friends face-to-face and less time online. Diana Graber has done a great job helping kids find ways to engage offline with family and friends.

Jethani: So the majority of teens already want to spend less time online.

Scheff: Exactly. And creating this offline time is important because that’s where they develop empathy and emotional intelligence. So when families put in sensible rules, like no devices at meal times, or putting phones away in a central charging area overnight, or entering into a smartphone contract with their kids, it gives kids that real-world time they so desperately want and need. [Editor’s note: You can download DFI’s family device agreement here.]

Jethani: That’s a great point. As parents, teachers, and school resource officers, we can also model these types of behaviors so kids can see we’re actually walking the walk.

Scheff: Right. What kind of example do we want to set for our kids? When it comes to teaching the right lessons about digital citizenship and behavior, it starts with us.

Jethani: All of us at DFI are grateful for the work you do. We want to make sure our instructors know about Shame Nation. Besides being a powerful account of how hate manifests online, it also contains a lot of practical tips on how to prevent online harassment, and what people can do if they find themselves the focus of such abuse. We highly recommend it to all our instructors.

Scheff: Thank you so much. I really admire the work DFI does teaching kids to be safe online. Keep up the good work!


Learn more about how you can help teens and kids take control of their digital lives with DFI’s free in-class curriculum.

Digital Futures Initiative (DFi)

Our mission is to empower educators, parents and communities to help kids and adolescents make better decisions and take control of the technology in their lives.

DFi provides tools and training programs for educators, law enforcement (SRO’s) and parents to teach children how to become good digital citizens. Our curriculum covers topics including cyberbullying, sexting, online predators, substance use, loss of emotional intelligence, distracted driving and more.

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