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From bystanders to ‘upstanders’ & leaders: How it’s done

This is one way it’s done, anyway – the way #iCANHELP does it. And in more than a decade of writing about solutions to anti-social behavior online, I haven’t seen one as effective, pro-social and pro-student as #iCANHELP. [Disclosure: I’m working with #iCANHELP to pilot a social media helpline for schools this year, so I’m biased, but this is why I’m working with them – besides the fact that 1) co-founders Matthew Soeth and Kim Karr are long-time, well-loved educators with deep experience in California’s decades-old student leadership movement and 2) I believe solutions to problems involving students aren’t really solutions if they don’t involve students.]ICH_horizontal-white

The name #iCANHELP says much more than you’d ever think. It says…

  • “We speak hashtag”: Adults call or email for support; students use hashtags. No backstory or explanation is needed. When something nasty is happening in social media, a student can add that 9-character hashtag to a comment, post or tweet, and help is on the way – from peers and adults. Students are much more likely (or more often) to ask for help because it’s so much easier to use a hashtag than, from their perspective, to start a big discussion that’s likely to be more trouble than it’s worth.
  • Help in kind. The response is appropriate to the problem – not just in that it’s digital and in the environment where the problem happens but also appropriate in terms of impact and emotional investment. The latest research shows that digital harassment has less emotional impact than the in-person kind and a lot less than harassment that’s happening both in person and online, and #iCANHELP gets that. They help with a light touch, and they know to map the response – sometimes counterspeech, sometimes a pile-on of support for the target, sometimes sending multiple abuse reports to the social media service in the background and, when called for, more than one of those – to the situation.
  • Help in the cloud. Support happens right where the problem happens – in the app or service where the anti-social behavior surfaces and support for the target(s) is needed. I’m not saying the whole problem’s in the cloud. It’s usually in “school life” whether during or after school hours, on or off campus, but help feels more helpful when it’s addressing the most visible representations of the problem.

  • Help in solidarity. #iCANHELP isn’t just a group of adults. Using a hashtag is a social, or collaborative, response. This isn’t top-down. This isn’t adults teaching digital leadership. It’s adults practicing it in solidarity with the peers of the target who use the hashtag to request help. This is teaching by modeling, facilitating and supporting. This is help in community, which only logically is what help should be in this peer-to-peer media environment.
  • Help in real time. Even if everybody behind #iCANHELP doesn’t see the “call” immediately, someone usually sees it pretty fast – faster than school personnel could respond, typically. It’s not that this is the only good way to request or get help – it’s just one way – but I see it as a necessary addition, and complement, to the “trusted adults” we’ve been telling kids to go to for years (if they really are trusted, I doubt we really have to tell young people to go to them).
  • Help in context. So the problem doesn’t get worse. Students who use the hashtag can actually see how the issue’s being addressed. They can trust that, by calling for help, they’re not making things worse, which they know can sometimes happen when they go to an adult who can’t fully understand because outside the context of the problem and the media environment. The more a responder understands the situation, the more bystanders know they can trust him or her to take appropriate action and the more the help service will be used.
  • Request + affirmation: When used in a tweet or post, the hashtag “#iCANHELP” is, in the typing, a request for help as well as an affirmation by the hashtag’s user that s/he is part of the solution. Think about it: Even if the affirmation isn’t a conscious thing, it’s a little 9-character, public declaration of positive action for another person, right there in “black and white” in a comment or tweet associated with the screen name of the person requesting support for another. I don’t want to overstate this, but isn’t this “being the change you want to see” in a digital space? [I added this point later because I thought of it after publishing this blog post. Do you see it too? I think #iCANHELP the organization is on to something, here – there’s amazing potential in this model.]

People don’t become “upstanders,” leaders or “digital citizens” because they’re told to be, right? In some cases not even when they’re taught to be. Leadership is learned through practice and from leaders – people who show us what it looks like – most powerfully in the spaces and contexts where leadership is most needed, in the spaces where we are. That’s certainly true with students, and #iCANHELP gets that.

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