If you’re an old fogey like me the name Rebecca Black probably won’t mean much. And to be honest, to kids in high school today in 2020 it might not mean much either. But she was the most googled person in 2011 and she can teach all of us a lot about an important psychological concept – resilience.
In 2011, Rebecca Black was a regular American middle school girl with aspirations to be a singer. With her mom’s help, she contacted a company who could send her a song to sing and produce a music video. She chose the song “Friday” and the video was released without fuss. However, as viral trends tend to go, someone tweeted it out, then it was picked up by the comedy show Tosh.0 and soon caught fire, going from a few thousand to over 1 million views on Youtube in a matter of days (it’s now been seen 145 million times).
But it wasn’t great news for Black. The music video got so much traction because of how bad it was, not how good it was. It was ruthlessly mocked and ridiculed, is one of YouTube’s most disliked videos (3.7million dislikes, 76%) and it sits on wikipedia’s list of the worst songs ever recorded. It’s hard to imagine how difficult it must have been for Rebecca, a 13 year old kid at the time, to be globally ridiculed. I think nearly every kid her age these days knows the feeling of seeing downvotes or dislikes on their social media posts so it should be easy for them to feel empathy towards Black.
I remember seeing this music video a few years ago, having a cringey chuckle and then going on with my life. I haven’t thought about it since a couple of days ago when this Buzzfeed video of Black talking about her experience popped up in my YouTube recommendations. I’m happy to report, the story has a happy (and inspirational) ending.
Spoiler alert: Black didn’t take down the video or shirk from the fame (or infamy) of having arguably the world’s worst music video. She didn’t vanish, head into eye witness protection, or do something much worse. She started her own YouTube channel and kept recording and making songs. Having a quick look back through her old songs from 2011-2012, we can see they were like Friday – getting plenty of hits but plenty of dislikes and I’d imagine a lot of trolling. She’s also spoken about how difficult this time in her life was (e.g. in this BBC article).
But like any great artist, she didn’t stop. She was resilient in the face of cyberbullying and kept doing what she loved – making music. One of her songs from earlier this year, Anyway, has over a million views and 93% like:dislikes. She is no longer the butt of the joke, but now has genuine fans who appreciate her creative work.
With online bullying becoming an increasingly important issue, Black’s journey from pop clown to queen is a valuable one for teenagers. So what can we learn from it? Well, we know kids will post to social media. There’s no stopping that. Which also means they’ll inevitably experience cyberbullying sooner or later. Now, it’d be nice to think that we could teach potential cyberbullies to see past the meme and to think of the person on the other side, but with their still developing brains this might not be a realistic expectation.
A far more realistic and relevant lesson is one of resilience – one’s ability to cope with stress and deal with adversity. Cyberbullying is an example of a stressor and what decades of psychological research into stress has taught us is that the effect a stressor has depends on how we think about it (known as appraisal). If we think a cyberbullying comment is a personal attack and everyone thinks the same way, our stress response and anxiety levels will probably go bezerk. But if think about it in a different way we can reduce the harmful effects of bullying. For example, we might think of a hurtful comment on a post not as a reflection of a negative aspect of ourselves, but rather stemming from something unpleasant in the bully’s own life. Similarly, focusing on the positives over the negatives might also help to reduce stress. Black’s video for “Friday” had over 1 million people who liked it. That’s pretty awesome when you think about it!
Another important aspect related to resilience is coping. Psychologists typically focus on two broad categories: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping involves identifying and working on ways to reduce the effects of the stressor or to remove it altogether. Emotion-focused coping involves focusing on the emotions caused by the stressor, rather than the source of the problem. Generally speaking, people who adopt a problem-focused coping strategy tend to have better outcomes (i.e. less stress and anxiety) than those who cope using an emotion-focused strategy. In Black’s case, one source of stress was the trolling and the negative comments about the quality of her music. How do you deal with that? Firstly, you could “ignore the haters” as they say. And secondly, get better. Keep practicing doing what you love and getting better at it. It’s seems like this is what Black has done.
I love this story of Rebecca Black’s perseverance and strength in the face of such adversity and I think there’s a lot here that kids could learn from.
Travis Dixon is an IB Psychology teacher, author, workshop leader, examiner and IA moderator.