Her letter came via snail mail. She’s 16. Her beautiful handwriting makes my own penmanship look like chicken fertilizer.
She’s an exceptional kid. Wants to be a graphic designer one day. Loves horses. Favorite book is “Huckleberry Finn.” Her favorite author is Mark Twain.
We’ll call her Becky.
“Dear Sean,” Becky’s letter began, “why are people so mean on social media…?”
It all started this summer. Becky posted pictures online. They were images her mom took while she was at the lake with friends.
Four teenage girls with arms draped around each other. Smiling. They wore modest bathing suits. They were eating ice cream. Normal kids. Just having fun.
The images received fistfuls of hateful comments from some of Becky’s classmates online. It really hurt.
“We’re not the tiniest girls in school,” she wrote. “I’m overweight and I’m not super pretty, but people were so mean that I literally wanted to die.”
There were over 73 ugly comments on Becky’s post. It started with kids she knew, then the remarks were coming from people she’d never met.
She finally took the photos down.
“Help me deal with haters,” Becky wrote. “I feel so bad about myself.”
I can relate to what you’re feeling, Becky. I was a child who never seemed to fit the mold. I had a wider waistline than most of my peers. My childhood doctor actually told me, point-blank, that I was overweight.
The exact word he used was the F word.
He laughed endearingly as he pinched my pink tummy and said, “Good heavens, this boy is FAT.”
He told me to be more active, to take better care of myself, to eat better, to consume less sugar, and then he lit another unfiltered Camel and offered the nurse one.
So I disliked myself, growing up. Which made me a prime target for bullies. To make matters worse, I wore godawful jeans my mom purchased from Sears which had an atrocious label affixed to the backside. The label read: “Husky.” These jeans are the reason many men my age are in therapy.
Also, I have crooked teeth. I am not handsome. And my hair was curly and red so that I looked like the lovechild between Gilda Radner and Danny Partridge.
I could go on, but I don’t think I will.
Moreover, I understand hateful commentary because I’m a writer. Writers have to put themselves out there. We will spend days working on a story before releasing it to the world, only to receive replies from fans via email which say, “You suck, toilet face.”
What we’re talking about here, Becky, is called heckling. And it’s on the rise in the U.S. Heckling has become more American than the McRib.
One study found that meanspirited comments have risen by 64 percent within the last three years on social media.
And if that doesn’t worry you, try this one on for size: About 40 percent of adult Americans admit they have experienced some form of online bullying.
The problem is, Becky, hecklers are here to stay. They aren’t going anywhere. We can’t get rid of them. We can’t ship them off to a desert island without food, beer, or toilet paper.
But maybe we can change how we deal with them.
The first question, of course, is why do they heckle? To answer this, I called a friend who is a behavioral psychologist. She had this to say:
“A bully is all about control. When a person trolls you, or leaves a bad comment online, they’re doing it because they feel overlooked, because they have self-worth problems.
“They want control. Even just a little. It’s that simple. So they set out to control you.”
The more pressing question, however, is how do you deal with such unsavory online folks who hide behind screen names?
To answer this particular question, Becky, I called my cousin Corndog.
Corndog is our family philosopher. He is an English major, which means he still lives with his mama.
He has worked in beer joints all over the greater southeast since he was old enough to start shaving.
During his time behind the bar, he has dealt with some very unreasonable customers, mostly patrons fueled by longneck Budweiser and bucketloads of testosterone. And yet, he is a gentle man who does not believe in fighting.
I asked him how to deal with bullies.
“The only way to deal with a fool is not to,” he told me. “Otherwise, an idiot will just drag you down to their level and kick your butt with experience.”
This advice sounded vaguely familiar to my ears. So I asked Corndog if this was a quote he’d made it up, or one he had filched.
“That proverb was written by Saint Mark,” he said.
“In the Bible?”
He shook his head. “Your friend will know which Mark I’m talking about.”