Rambling of the Day: Social media, a modern scarlet letter

18 Mar
Photo by Ethan Marcotte via Flickr

Photo by Ethan Marcotte via Flickr

By now, most of you have heard about the rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, where two high school football players have been found guilty in juvenile court for raping a 16-year-old girl. Obviously I’m highly disturbed by what these kids did, but what irks me the most about this case beyond the rape is the use of social media as an outlet to brag about the crime and humiliate the victim.

Let me be clear: by focusing on the media aspect of this instance, I am in no way trying to belittle the physical actions of these high schoolers. What they did to this 16-year-old in the physical sense is horrendous and they certainly deserve the punishment they are getting. But what they did on a separate level through the use of their technology is almost certainly going to be the more damaging crime to themselves and this young woman in the long run.

It is becoming more and more blaringly apparent that we as a generation and culture are stepping onto a new playing field with our technological advances. And it’s happening quickly – so quickly that the kids growing up in this social media/big data generation have yet to fully understand the permanency of their decisions regarding the way they are sharing their data. These kids are treating text messages and Facebook the way we would have treated passing notes in class. They are failing to see the vast consequences of what they share and how they are sharing it.

 “Digital communication is so commonplace, especially among the younger generation, that those who engage in it are often not aware that they are creating a permanent record of their impressions, opinions and beliefs which could later be used in court.” Ric Simmons, CNN

The Steubenville case is a landmark case not because of the physical crime that took place – despicable as it is, this is certainly not the first time a high schooler has been taken advantage of at a drunken party. This case is so astonishing to us because we are finally witnessing the devastating consequences of the abuse of social media. We’ve seen somewhat similar issues arise, such as what has been termed “cyber bullying,” where kids are essentially electronically torturing each other via social media. But this is different. This is a disturbing display of the viciousness of the kids of this generation – a display available for all to see. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not necessarily saying kids these days are more or less violent than they were twenty years ago before they had access to social media. However, hearing about something like this secondhand like we would have ten years ago is vastly different from actually seeing it – reading what they texted about word for word, seeing the pictures these kids took and how many people they sent them to, and finding out how many people were involved in humiliating this girl. This is brand new terrain.

The consequences of these high schoolers’ decisions will not end after they serve a few years locked up. Because of their crimes, they will be registered sex offenders – a scar that will mar their image forever. But that’s still not the end of it. Going back to the passing notes analogy – the notes they sent can’t be torn up and thrown away. Their texts and pictures will live on forever in cyber space, and there’s nothing they can do to get rid of the evidence of their foolishness.

So what do we take away from this, other than the sick feeling in our stomachs? Honestly, I don’t know exactly. The technological capabilities at our disposal are advancing more quickly than we have prepared ourselves – and our kids – for. But what do we do, then, ban them from sending pictures to their friends? Read every text message they write? I don’t think that’s the answer.

And I’m not going to propose a clear-cut answer, because I just don’t have one. Obviously this is a moral issue, but it’s more than that. It’s also an issue of what these minors have at their disposal. Sure, they’re 16 and not 8, meaning they should have the cognitive understanding that what they did was wrong. But 16 is a far cry from adulthood for a male – hell, even 18 is a far cry for many guys. We allow them to carry around these mobile devices that truly give them the capability to access any kind of information they want. If that smart phone can go online, then that kid can get onto any website in the world. I don’t care what kind of restrictions you think you put on your account – your kid can get to whatever they want to get.

Think back to when you were 16. Even if you weren’t a bad kid, it’s highly unlikely that you were totally responsible and trustworthy 100% of the time. By handing our kids these devices, we’re essentially asking them to be perfect, trustworthy individuals every hour of everyday. Really? How negligently naïve can we be?

Like I said, I’m not proposing a solution to the problem we have on our hands. I simply don’t have one. I just know that we’ve got to start thinking outside the box here, start treating our kids like what they are – kids. We’ve got to get rid of the delusional idea that their frontal lobes automatically become fully developed the day we hand them a smart phone. And we definitely have to instill in them the understanding that the things they send from their devices can’t be unsent. Once one picture, text or video is sent to as little as one other person, what happens to that item is completely out of your hands. They must understand the gravity and the permanence of their decision to send their information anywhere. As sad as this case in Steubenville is, my hope is that it helps lead us to a better understanding of how to deal with social media in a generation where almost nothing is sacred and even less is secret.

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