Cyberbullying, politics, and anger: Does travel help teens handle a divided world?
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Cyberbullying, politics, and anger: Does travel help teens handle a divided world?

An alumnus of a local high school in Pennsylvania tipped parents off to a new problem on social media in the area. Teens had created a social media account where students were encouraged to publicly spew the reasons they “hated” another teen. The comments could be posted freely during a designated time period and then at the end they were supposedly deleted.

Perhaps the idea was inspired by the novel 1984 with its concept of the “two minutes of hate.” Regardless, the hateful comments did not go away – they were seen, felt, screenshotted.

It would be nice to say the adults are better than this, but then there are screaming “grownups” on the internet, television, at the grocery store – you name it. It can take a toll on teenagers trying to find their way in the world.

So how can teens navigate this climate? Travel is one helpful tool. Getting away from local tensions – even if it’s for a limited period of time – provides a respite and new perspective. It opens teens up to a world of people who have very different joys and challenges.

Here are some of the ways that travel can help students when they feel like they’re living in an angry world:

Meeting New People

One great aspect of a student travel program is that teens are meeting people who have no preconceived notions. One teen in a group could be a student who was just dissed by some toxic friends, and another teen could be the most popular kid at school. They both start from the same place.

Plus, students have ample opportunity to make connections with program leaders and local community members. There are so many chances to branch out while traveling.

Copyright: © 2016 Rustic Pathways

Along the way, a teen may find they relate better to people from another background. They may feel like they fit in better in another climate. They won’t know until they try.

Creating Awareness

Traveling to other countries can also open the door to understanding, if it’s done right. The old cliché about walking in someone else’s shoes is a famous saying for a reason. In an immersive travel experience, students spend some time living as the locals do and seeing the real day-to-day life. This can help students put challenges at home in perspective.

Immersive travel is very different from staying at a resort where “othering” can happen, and local residents may be viewed as foreigners who don’t have much in common with the tourists.

In an immersive trip, students can learn about different cultures, socioeconomic groups, religions and day-to-day lifestyles. They can see how the ideas of collectivism differ from individualism and so much more.

Alumna Tal Nagar was one of many students who benefited from getting out in the world. She was attending a small school with little diversity in the United States when she signed up for travel programs in the Dominican Republic and Fiji. That gave her a perspective she couldn’t get at home.

Rustic Pathways student Tal Nagar connected with local villagers during her program in Fiji. Photo: Tal Nagar

Rustic Pathways student Tal Nagar connected with local villagers during her program in Fiji. Photo: Tal Nagar

“It wasn’t until my trips with Rustic, that truly immersed me into new cultures and ways of life, that I understood the power of travel,” Nagar said. “There is something so special about disconnecting from your own life and fully immersing yourself into someone else’s.”

Such awareness can help students handle adversity better. Dr Julia Zimmermann and Dr. Franz Neyer did research on how travel affects people’s personalities. As they wrote in their findings:

“When they returned home after traveling, the participants tended to show an increase in openness to new experiences, agreeableness and emotional stability.”

Teaching Empathy

Extending beyond awareness is the deeper notion of empathy. Cyberbullies and angry people often lack empathy. Yet scientists have indicated that some level of empathy can be taught, so it’s good for teens to do what they can to develop this important trait.

Likewise, empathetic people tend to attract the best attention. As another cliché goes, you attract more bees with honey than with vinegar.

Doing service in another country is a great way to foster these lessons. Students can see needs that may not exist in their hometowns and are empowered to help – not only while on the road but also at home.

Students learn about medical care in developing countries during the Public Health in the Caribbean program in the Dominican Republic. Copyright: © 2016 Rustic Pathways

Charlotte Ide was eager to share her experiences after traveling to Tanzania and the Dominican Republic. She says a mentor told her that travel has a ripple effect as students learn from the communities they visit and then bring that back to their town.

“Travel has activated something vital in me – the unending empathy and desire to help everyone you can,” Ide said. “As soon as our plane touched down in the States, we began to ask each other – ‘What comes next?’ … We realized the answer was simple. We must teach others what we have learned.”

Promoting Creativity

Columbia Professor Adam Galinsky has found that travel increases cognitive flexibility. That allows people to consider different ideas. This promotes empathy but also creativity.

His research suggests that “living in and adapting to foreign cultures facilitates creativity.”

It’s no surprise there are some modern techniques for conflict resolution that require creativity, flexibility and the ability to listen to different views. This includes the concept of Deliberative Polling.

The Deliberative Polling process helps examine people’s opinions on selected issues. Dr. Alice Siu from Stanford University says that 50% to 70% of the time there are significant changes in personal opinions after participants complete all the steps involved in the polling activity.

That’s because the Deliberative Polling process breaks the mold. Not only are participants exposed to different ideas, but they also work in a collaborative way to understand other perspectives.

“It’s really important to understand why we believe what we believe and can articulate that,” Siu said. “Sometimes we forget we are part of a society where people disagree with us, and we need to learn to listen to one another.”

Travel can get the ball rolling on this way of thinking. Once they are accustomed to doing this, students are less likely to jump on a cyberbullying bandwagon.

They’re also better able to handle conflicts if they are on the receiving end of not-so-nice comments. They’ll have the flexibility, world experience, and maturity to put things in context and hold onto the hope that there are good things in the world.

So if you have a teen who feels caught in a divided community, it may be time to plan a journey and see other perspectives. View our programs to get started.

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Lead Editor

Mary is the Lead Editor at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.