Can we talk? I'm a millennial and I'm struggling with the poisonous side of social media

Once upon a time, if you wanted to smear someone anonymously from a distance, you had to write on a bathroom wall. The words were still painful, but the scale was local. Today, cowards and bullies can conveniently deride human targets globally, hiding behind screen names and unknown caller IDs, more easily sending their poison out on social media with the clear intent of causing harm. I should know.

As a musical artist, one of the great joys of my life is meeting people across the country, sharing songs that tell a true stories of life’s joy, pain and potential. But as my work comes to the attention of more people, I also become a target as some use the most amazing technology the world has ever seen to smear virtual bathroom wall epithets.

I know I’m not alone. E-Online recently listed a number of people in the spotlight who have considered leaving social media altogether or took the drastic step of shutting down after repeated harassment – artists that include Justin Bieber, actress Ariel Winter, Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown, Star Wars’ Kelly Marie Tran, Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley, Walking Dead’s Josh McDermitt, Ghostbusters Leslie Jones and others.

Words can really hurt. A study from the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania out this week found that “(e)ach 10 percent increase in a student's negative experiences on social media was associated with a 20 percent increase in the odds of depressive symptoms.” Sadly, positive experiences didn’t erase the negative very much.  

The kind of derision and bullying that occupies social media isn’t something that you can easily opt out of as a world of people mobilize using the media that surrounds us.

Sure I can become a virtual hermit, but that’s a tough way to build a career. It would also be the same thing as cutting myself off from the vibrant life of my generation.

Millennials are plugged in. Today, 73 percent of my generation are on YouTube; 68 percent on Facebook; 78 percent on Snapchat; 71 percent on Instagram and close to half of us use Twitter, according to Pew. When basically 3 out of 4 of your peers are engaged in an activity, it affects you.

Social media absolutely impacts well-being, especially mental and emotional health, as stories of the bullied who end their lives make headlines illustrates. In fact, 8 in 10 people believe it’s easier to get away with bullying online rather than in person. Tragic.

But it’s not just as an entertainer that I’ve had to endure. Like most women, I’ve had a #MeToo season where I needed to defend myself against the games others wanted to play.  As a high school student in Kansas, I became a target for a group of bullies who threatened me and harassed me anonymously in social media and at school, messing with my car and making their animus known in the cowardly quiet way that is possible with all the tools my generation loves.

Eventually I left the school. I was blessed. I had a mom who helped me move on and friends and family who stood with me.

That experience really plays out in my music, where I want to encourage those who feel like they are on the outside of life looking in without anyone to watch their back. In Diamond, a song that really celebrates rising from the ashes of those kinds of bad experiences, I try and encourage people to look past life’s trials to find their own, original beauty. It’s a message I also share when I speak at high school events where teens who are suffering can connect with strategies to not just endure, but to overcome harsh treatment.

I really appreciated it when, in First Lady Melania Trump’s “Be Best” campaign, she identified social media as an area that we need to focus on to achieve well-being. It was disappointing that the reactions of some was to mock the anti-bullying messages she was trying to share, probably in part based on the kinds of things she has had to endure.

Social media absolutely impacts well-being, especially mental and emotional health, as stories of the bullied who end their lives make headlines illustrates. In fact, 8 in 10 people believe it’s easier to get away with bullying online rather than in person. Tragic.

After seeing a video I made about sexual harassment, one of the guys who once tormented me reached out to apologize. “I know we made some amends,” he wrote me. “But Kaylee, I’m so terribly sorry for being a part of that.” We’ve reconciled.

There’s a dual message for my generation when it comes to social media. First, follow the Golden Rule 2.0: Don’t post about others what you wouldn’t want to see posted about yourself. And Second: Don’t take to heart everything that is said about you.

I’m not sure you can fix the problem of using social media as a weapon with a one-size-fits all law, but this demands a conversation. Social media becomes a positive force one person at a time, as each of us decides whether to use it to build people up or tear them down.

Kaylee Keller is a singer, song writer, musical artist, and public speaker for youth, anti-bullying and empowerment programs who knows there’s no place like Kansas. Follow her at @KayNoelKeller or on Facebook