Lately, things seem a little tougher, ongoing lockdowns, dispiriting news, and the regular range of commentary on social media....
I have made no secret that these days, it is hard to stay positive and to be excited, let alone to want to keep sharing our trek in the midst of some of the commentary we receive. However, more than anything said directly to us, the situation has me thinking a great deal about what this type of commentary in the online world is doing to those persons who are either born digital or who live in the digital environment.
When things get rough for me, I go outside. I get away from my desk, go for a long walk, or go sit in a park on a bench. I turn to the outdoors and nature because it gets me away from my laptop and the onslaught of the online world, but also because that is where I grew up. My days at home as a child where spent in our backyard or in a local park with friends. Fortunately for me, much of my time in school was spent outdoors - exploring, discovering, and pushing my boundaries with friends. When we made mistakes it was a learning experience and we moved on without ridicule, without fear of being haunted by our actions for years, and without fear of going viral online.
Today I’m not seeing much of that. I have helped raise a younger relative whose school used to inform that kids "would HAVE to go outside for recess if they weren’t good in class." (This was the opposite of what I experienced). I have watched as youth are given the option to get out of physical education in school and be allowed to text or go online at their desks instead. I have listened to a school principal bluntly state that “physical education has no immediate benefit to youth. Gym doesn’t give kids any skills they need, not like the ones they can develop at a computer. It's at a computer that they will get a job.” And I have dealt with a teenager who became addicted to video games largely because that was the environment in which his family raised him and which he then felt most comfortable in. After all who wants to deal with the chaos and unknowns of real life when you can be safe in the expected linearity of a game? It is certainly a new world out there. But is it a better one or a more isolating one? What are the consequences of being born digital and living online?
This past year under lockdown and Covid restrictions has shown all of us what some of the results are of not being able to get outside, not being able to get away from our screens, and not being able to spend time outdoors can feel like. We have begun to discover that as we spend more of our time in front of screens that we disconnect from the world around us and quickly discover that social media is actually anti-social media. As a result, more and more people are facing mental health challenges, more people are dealing with anxiety and depression from isolation, and more people are reaching out for help.
Now imagine that this is how many young people today must live all the time - online.
How do today’s youth deal with the constant onslaught of critique, outrage, bullying and opinions given by the "experts" on every topic when they don't have the life experiences to guide and reassure them? From what we have experienced there is a great deal of selfish, thoughtless, and negative criticism online and little consideration for how people hear it, interpret it, and how it shapes what others are willing to do or not do.
The number of times that we have been mocked for making a mistake on our 24,000 km trek across Canada, told how stupid we are, or have been informed that someone is “waiting to laugh when you die out there” has stunned us. People we don’t know, have never spoken to, and who have never commented before all of a sudden feel compelled to inform us that their days are being spent waiting for our demise. It’s shocking and admittedly more than a little unnerving.
Don't get me wrong, I don’t think this type of commentary is focused specifically on us or that it is unique to us alone. So I wonder what does this do to those youth who have no escape from the online world?
This is an especially pertinent question given that presently the news is filled with stories of people who are experiencing mental health challenges because they are not able to get outdoors, and tales of youth who have been harassed to the point of suicide by online bullies.
Now perhaps youth born online and grown up digital are used to this forum of constant critique, negative opinions, and the implication that they will fail even before they begin. Nonetheless, I have to believe that it has an impact. I have to believe that people know that if they make a mistake, fail at something, or could become the focus of widespread online criticism that they will then refuse to try something new or push their boundaries. It would simply be too much of a risk.
I spent weeks as a child learning to ride a bike with my father patiently running beside me helping me to keep my balance and encouraging me every time I drove straight into every garbage can and tree in the local park. Today I’m not sure I would take risk. I would be too worried that someone would film my attempts to learn and make fun of me. I also know that I have made a lot of mistakes in life while learning and growing and I am grateful that none of them were changed into viral videos or subject to nonstop online critique. Once again, if they had been I’m not sure I would have tried skiing, dancing, violin playing, singing, knitting, birding, hiking, etc, etc, etc. There would have been too much to lose - and because I wouldn't have tried, who I am and what I do today would be very different.
The largest risk I faced as a kid was that a couple of my friends might see me, and have a good laugh before we all moved onto something else. Silly moments were forgotten by dinner and life continued. Thankfully in my childhood, mistakes could happen without fear that they would appear online or lead to a lifetime of derision. Today that doesn’t seem to be the case when everyone from online trolls to Canada Research Chairs spend their time bloviating and deriding people.
Crisis in Exploration and discovery
Given this situation and the criticisms people online face I get why a lot of kids aren’t exploring, aren’t taking risks, and not having new experiences. If you know that your mistakes, failures and the unknown – all those things that lead to learning and growing - will only lead to mockery or the potential of being made into a viral video why would you risk it?
The online world seems to foster people’s drive to criticize
everything, critique everyone and share their self proclaimed expertise on
everything. But the reality is that this environment is also stifling a lot of
people who just want to get out there and try something new. It is limiting personal growth, teaching kids
not to take risks, pushing them to not explore the unknown and killing
innovation in the process. We need to
acknowledge that not every decision made by others needs to be criticized and
ranted about. We need to see that not every idea in our
heads needs to be proclaimed and not every achievement by others needs to be belittled.
Someone should be allowed to post their birding pictures without being told they are crap or that they have to buy a $10,000 camera lens before ever taking another image. Someone should be able to post their art work without being lectured that they are “making people’s eyes bleed” and that they should “quit and never try again”. Someone should be allowed to talk about their first birding experience without being one upped by everyone in the forum about how awesome their own sightings are. And someone should be able to ask questions about camping without being subject to mockery, bragging, judgment, and being called a 'noob'. If for no other reason (though there are lots) than the fact that we all begin somewhere, we have all learned at one point, and we all made mistakes in the process.
I think it is time that we all got back to encouraging
rather than critiquing. It’s time to let people take risks, learn, develop and
excel. It's time for there to be more Mentors and fewer Critics in the world.
I was very fortunate when I was growing up, I had a family that encouraged me, promoted my ambitions, supported the risks I took, and held my hand when plans fell through. (In fact they still do). On Monday if I wanted to be a doctor I was encouraged, on Wednesday if I wanted to learn to ski I was encouraged, and on Friday if I wanted to be a singer I was encouraged (though I think my parents owned ear plugs). If I was willing to work hard and push myself, then I was encouraged to believe that I could do anything I set my mind to.
Today online however, it seems that almost every ambition, dream, consideration, and question that people ask are cut down, ridiculed, and become the forum for self promotion and braggarts.
I don’t think most people realize how much a single comment, constant critiques and criticism can change a person’s life or the goals they allow themselves to follow. If someone doesn’t have the skills to do something, doesn’t have the inherent talent, or lacks the personal drive to do what they are dreaming of, the truth is that they will figure it out on their own, in good time, and likely learn a lot along the way.
We don’t each have to be the expert, we don’t each have to be the source of the “tough truth who is just being honest”, and we don’t have be the ones to add the unnecessary sarcastic commentary beneath each post we read. We don’t each need to strut to make sure everyone knows how much better we are, and we don’t have to give everyone our own self righteous and self justified opinions. Sometimes we can let things be and remember the old saying that "if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all."
As a society, we spending too much time and becoming too invested in cutting others down. Why aren’t we focusing all of this energy into encouraging others towards their dreams, toward innovation, and toward something new? We have big challenges these days and we need all the talent and ideas that are out there. Why can’t we just let others be to explore, discover, and excel…
I think if the online naysayers could get out of the way of the people who want to dream big and youth who want to explore then there are no bounds to where their potential will take them!
We each have a huge amount of influence on those around us,
those in our families, and those in our communities – both offline and
online. Whether we know it or not we and our attitudes have an impact upon our friends, families, youth, business colleagues, and
politicians. Given how powerful our
influence on others is, perhaps it is time for all of us to focus on being more encouraging
by promoting, amplifying, and mentoring those who are willing to take a risk
and try something new.
The world needs more Mentors and fewer Critics
We have said it before and we'll say it again, but we have only gotten this far
into our trek, with the help and support of so many others. Great individuals, who were there at the
right time, in the right place to reach out, give a few words of encouragement
and propel us onward. It is their trek as much as ours because they helped us keep going! Encouragement
is so powerful and so meaningful and adds so much to a person and what they
feel they can do. We all need more of that.
To those who are looking at venturing out, navigating their own dreams, taking on that first camping trip or long distance hike, or setting out to try something new - don't be limited by others. Stay strong, get out there, do your thing, make mistakes (because we all do), learn, explore, discover, and move on! Cut your own trail, and do great things...
See you out there being as amazing as you can be!