This week, a Bangor High School senior received a great deal of attention due to the quote he chose to accompany his yearbook photo. Unfortunately, his quote wasn’t exactly inspirational — it was a Hitler quote. Call it what you want — free speech, a tasteless prank, or anti-Semitism — this one simple act will negatively impact him for years to come.
All kids make mistakes. My kids make dozens daily. That’s how they learn. I certainly made many a poor decision in my teenage years (and beyond). The difference, however, is that when I made my mistakes, Google didn’t exist, Mark Zuckerberg was in diapers, it took two weeks to develop a photo, and viral meant an infection. For those of us 40 or older, most of us are spared the embarrassment of past transgressions. We all went through misguided, embarrassing phases. However, we have been allowed, more or less, to delete our embarrassing misdeeds from our histories.
When I was growing up, we had Scared Straight!, a series of terrifying documentaries that followed juvenile delinquents as they spent time among prison “lifers” who relentlessly berated and terrified them into changing their ways before they ruined their lives. As kids, these documentaries gave us an unflinching look at the lives of those who had gone down the wrong path, and that we should avoid such a fate at all costs.
There is no Scared Straight! for teens navigating the modern digital world. Millennials and Generation Z are unique in that they are the first generation to have an extensive digital record of their lives beginning at birth — Digital Natives, as they are often called. The parents of these children are unique in that they are the first generations to guide children through this treacherous digital terrain.
It only takes one misguided Snapchat, tweet, picture, yearbook quote, text message, or Vine to make you a viral sensation in all the wrong ways. This is something that I try to impress upon my own children frequently and often, and I believe the best way to do so is to scare them straight, so to speak, with real world examples of dumb moments that changed people’s lives forever:
- A 17 year-old North Carolina boy and his 16-year-old girlfriend were both charged as adults for sending sexually explicit photos of minors (themselves) — to each other’s phones. The boy, charged with a felony, would have faced life as a registered sex offender if convicted.
And if you think this is a rare, fluke occurrence, you’d be surprised: 54% of teens under 18 report sending or receiving sexually explicit text messages or images. And as wrongheaded as their application may be, child pornography laws are ensnaring sexting teens all the time.
- A 22-year old Michigan resident made two dumb mistakes that will follow her around forever: First, she decided to dress up as a Boston Marathon bombing victim for Halloween, then she posted the photo on Instagram and Twitter. She went viral in the worst possible way. She, as well as her family and friends, received rape and death threats. Her employer was contacted, and she was terminated. She received a relentless public shaming that included the circulation of nude photos and an endless torrent of online abuse.
- In 2012, two teenage girls in Florida posted a racist rant on YouTube. That video went viral, resulted in countless death threats, and the girls were forced to drop out of their high school. Despite public apologies, and the removal of the video, they will live on forever as poster children of racism and social media stupidity. One particular repost of the video that is still available currently has over 2 million views.
- Following Barack Obama’s re-election, the website Jezebel took public shaming to a whole new level by compiling the names of a whole slew of teens who had posted racist and violent tweets, contacting the principals and superintendents of their schools (which were included in the students’ public Twitter bios), and essentially enshrining their racist remarks for eternity.
And while the following two examples are not exactly youngsters, they are two of the most well-known examples of how an ill-advised decision can end up defining an individual for the rest of their lives online, and can impact every aspect of one’s life, forever.
- A woman who posted a “joke” photo of her giving the finger to an Arlington National Cemetery “Silence and Respect” sign lost her career, her reputation, and endured a relentless online firestorm, including a ‘Fire Lindsey Stone’ Facebook page that attracted 12,000 likes, and a barrage of news camera crews at her front door. “Literally overnight, everything I knew and loved was gone,” she stated. She became depressed, developed insomnia, and hardly left the house the following year. Today, you can’t Google her name without seeing page after page of stories. She is now defined by one mistake.
- Justine Sacco, a 30-year old PR executive, was getting ready to board a plane to South Africa, when she tweeted something that would cause her life to unravel. What she intended as a joke about white guilt and Western privilege instead came across as racist, tasteless, offensive, and unprofessional for someone of her stature (or for pretty much anyone who isn’t, say, Sarah Silverman or Louis CK). It read, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” The whole time she was in the air, Sacco had no idea that she had become a trending topic on Twitter. Or that her tweet had generated tens of thousands of angry replies. Or that her employer was already in crisis management mode. Or that angry people in Cape Town were awaiting her arrival at the airport. Sacco lost her job, but will never lose the association to her racist and insensitive tweet, due to the simple fact that the internet never forgets (try googling “Justine Sacco”).
While most of the above transgressions may deserve varying degrees of consequences, none of the above truly deserves to be forever defined by one stupid digital transmission. As Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, wrote, “We are reducing people to the worst thing they ever did.” Yet that is the reality of today’s digital social landscape.
We could do a lot worse than to educate kids about the fact that, for better or worse, today’s digital masses serve as judge, jury, and executioner these days. Public floggings of the literal variety have been banished in Western societies, but digital public floggings are alive and well — and they leave a mark.
We should ensure that they real examples of people who negatively impacted their lives by pressing send on that one dumb thing. We need to remind kids that there is a 100% chance that they will be googled — by potential employers, universities, coaches, admirers, and so on. Do they really want to be defined by that one dumb thing?