The internet is a very powerful place. It has the ability to make or break you. One goal everyone has (whether they want to admit it or not) is going viral. Most people go viral for silly reasons, but every once in a while something serious will gain our attention. One of those things is bullying. Every once in a while, a bullying victim will garner worldwide attention. Most recently, this was a boy named Keaton Jones who questioned through tears why people pick on others for being different. He says he’s been made fun of for his nose, had milk poured on him, and had students put their hands on him. The video’s views skyrocketed and even celebrities took notice. Many invited him to premieres or just offered their support. It was a beautiful show of solidarity.
This essay isn’t about the twist that came afterwards though (that Keaton’s family is supposedly racist and Keaton allegedly used racial slurs against his black classmates, causing them to retaliate). Instead, I’m going to consider whether or not such viral attention is good. I’m going to focus on three facets of this: how it affects the victim, how it affects other victims, and how race and sexuality may play into it.
In the general sense, victims of bullying going viral in this manner brings attention to the issue as a whole. It puts a name and a face to the problem, personalizing it and making it harder to ignore. However, is it fair for these victims to become anti-bullying mascots simply because they went viral? Having powerful people tell you you’re strong or offering you cool experiences has to be a self-esteem booster, but it doesn’t solve the problem. It’s a kind gesture, but attending a movie premiere with Chris Evans isn’t going to change the bullies’ behavior. Additionally, it may have the opposite effect and make the situation worse. Jealousy and bitterness are huge factors in such negative behavior. This may, in fact, put a worldwide target on their backs.
It also doesn’t help that being bullied and victimized can be an embarrassing experience. You feel weak and helpless when you’re being bullied. Even when support inevitably comes in for these viral kids, the whole world is now privy to their pain. That’s not a window through which we should have the right. Most of these kids didn’t ask for such widespread attention. It could exacerbate their insecurities and even humiliate them. While I’m sure they appreciate the support, it comes at a very high cost. These are just kids, after all.
As I said before, these kids going viral puts a spotlight on the issue. When they come forward, other victims see they’re not alone. Seeing people come together to support a victim shows other victims that what’s happening to them is wrong and that maybe they can find support as well. However, it also creates a sense of othering, as though some victims are more special than others. A kid might think, “Why do all these people care about that person, when no one seems to care about me?” It almost lends a sense of importance to these viral kids that other victims don’t have. They’re just another nameless, faceless victim, a statistic rather than a person. Being bullied can make you feel isolated and ignored, especially when you report it and nothing changes. Is it fair to spotlight some victims, when others are actively being ignored?
Even more tragic, sometimes there’s a reason victims don’t go viral or get helped. Just weeks before Keaton’s viral video, a story came out about ten-year-old Ashawnty Davis who had committed suicide due to bullying. Her story garnered far less attention and the GoFundMe for her funeral has received a fraction of the donation Keaton’s has. What is the one difference between Ashawnty and Keaton? Ashawnty was black. Last year, thirteen-year-old Tyrone Unsworth also committed suicide due to bullying. He was gay and Indigenous. He got very limited press and no viral attention. This speaks a lot to the underlying racism and homophobia so deeply ingrained in our society. The message of the patriarchy says the straight white male is superior, and so our society’s subconscious heartstrings are pulled whenever one of them feels pain. It neglects the very sad reality that minorities often face bullying simply for being minorities. We as a society refuse to acknowledge it because it would force us to take a harder look at how we treat minorities in general. And god forbid we reflect on that and find ourselves lacking.
All this is to say, I don’t know if bullying victims going viral is good or bad. There are so many pros and cons for both said victims and other victims, and not every voice is heard. I think, ultimately, it’s not good— unless the victim chooses to use their experience as a case for anti-bullying. Any child who didn’t ask to go viral shouldn’t have to deal with the fallout it inevitably incurs. However, if they choose to share their story to help others and people applaud that, I can’t condemn that choice. So, next time one of these kids and their story makes the rounds, keep all this in mind. It’s not melodrama when I say lives are at stake.