Amanda Todd, the 15-year-old B.C. teen who committed suicide last week, resided in a world much like the one depicted in the popular 1999 film, The Matrix. The majority of her social life was spent plugged into a digital community of millions, while physically, she sat completely alone.
The following is a guest column written by Michael Hiscock.
In The Matrix, humanity is unaware that they have been trapped in a digital reality. Yet endless fields of humans are grown in pods, connected literally, from the head, to a giant super computer. Machines had successfully turned humans into living batteries.
With Facebook’s first earnings report pegging the number of active users at 955 million, a fair chunk of the planet is now connected to similar digital identities within a computerized world.
The solitary practice of being online, counter intuitively, is now the way to be social. With almost a billion people now engaging in Facebook, the real world is beginning to mirror the human fields depicted in the film.
These digital worlds of interaction are where Todd encountered many Agent Smiths — a kind of corrupt, digital police force engineered by the machines in The Matrix. They can digitally take form anywhere, instantly. For Todd, they came in the form of bullies.
Why didn’t she simply delete her social media accounts and cut off their power?
According to Kathy St. Denis, a counsellor with Kids Help Phone, her refusal to ditch Facebook likely stems from fear.
“They’re fearful of deleting people. It might lead to physical retaliation,” she said.
Teenage status and social media are directly correlated, she says. Having a 0-friend profile at a new school makes fitting in difficult. At the same time, leaving bullies on a friends list to boost its number only allows the torment to continue.
Even though Todd moved and changed cities, it proved futile because she remained connected to the Facebook matrix. Her bully-agents could continually check in to see what she was up to, as long as she stayed connected.
Cyber attacks on social media profiles and avatars cut so deep because they are beginning to dominate a teen’s sense of self.
Julian Soloninka, 22, is a student at Western University and an avid gamer. Having spent 280 hours living as an alternate identity in a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) world last summer, he knows plenty about its appeal.
“My inability to control real-world interactions was substituted by total control in the digital world,” Soloninka said. “To a certain extent, we live through these characters.”
MMORPGs allow people to create and customize the characters they become in the matrix. People can now give themselves whatever appearance and abilities they desire, even flight.
The same is true of the movie. Real-world rules can be bent because the matrix is not a real world, it simply appears as one.
Todd believed in the matrix because it was the world she had lived in since before grade 7, when her problems began.
She was bullied online, hounded online and even appealed for help online. It was as if she didn’t know she could exist outside of that realm.
Online gamers have even coined the phrase “RL,” standing for Real Life. People will say that their “RL” friends are over, for example. Our physical selves are now an afterthought.
Why do people remain in the matrix? Control, anonymity and fear; some of the same reasons teens are refusing to delete social media accounts in the face of bullying.
As the seemingly controlled world of Facebook spun wildly out of control for Todd, escape became almost impossible. The cyber assaults permeated the walls of her bedroom, the Agent Smiths invaded and she isolated herself more and more, until the computer was all she had left.
What is the solution to bullying that you can’t run away from?
St. Denis says it’s very simple: talk.
“Talk. Talk to someone you can trust. Do whatever is necessary to help,” she said.
Canadians are deeply divided on the solution, however. B.C. Premier Christy Clarke suggested criminalizing cyber bullying, NDP MP Dany Morin disagrees and first wants to study its prevalence and effects. In the meantime, the hacker group Anonymous continues to release the identities of people it says were Todd’s tormentors.
The premise on which The Matrix is based is this: though the matrix is not real, our minds make it real. If you die in the matrix, you die in real life.
In yet another sad parallel, everything the matrix did to Todd, she made real. She cut her wrists. She drank bleach. And, very tragically, committed suicide when her digital identity could take no more. Unlike the movie, there was no hero – no ‘Neo’ – to rescue her and free her from the matrix’s grasp.
Amanda Todd lost sight of the love and support she had in real life, succumbing instead to her virtual assailants’ vicious attacks.
For parents who worry that their son or daughter might become the next victim of cyber-bullying, the answer is not to avoid the matrix – that is next to impossible. Parents must instead arm their children with pride in their real-life and tangible accomplishments.
Only by helping them keep their feet firmly planted in this world, can we hope to help them thrive online.