Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Internet is Not a Video Game

An open message to kids and young adults who haven't yet got the message:

Facebook, Twitter and all other forms of internet-based social media exist in the real, adult world of cause-and-effect consequences. They are not video games from which you can punch the "reset" button if you don't like what's happening.

In the most recent local example of this, a popular young student-athlete in a nearby suburb of Minneapolis has been charged with a felony after he posted a comment on some kind of "confessional" web site where he stated he was having a sexual relationship with an attractive young female phys. ed. teacher in his high school.  He now claims this statement was meant facetiously, sarcastically, as a comment of the absurdity of what was transpiring on this web site. (That's possible, I suppose, but it frankly smacks of the kid's attempt to bluster his way out of big trouble.) But the consequences of his action involved the quote being distributed via Twitter to hundreds of people, which in turn lead to school administrators and police interrogating the bewildered gym teacher to her great humiliation and embarrassment. Once it became clear that the stories were entirely bogus, our young high schooler was first expelled from school, and now potentially faces felony charges for the harmful effects of his actions.

As my wife and I discussed this last night, we agreed that the problem here is that internet technology is really built by and for people who view it all as some kind of game and not part of the real world. When you hear hackers talk about their actions from prison cells, for example, they generally talk about not viewing what they did as real crimes, but just as interesting intellectual games they played against financial databases and national security web sites. Nobody seems to realize that the internet exists in a real adult world where actions have consequences.

I recall from our high school days both a very attractive female gym teacher and a couple of female academic teachers who were 6 or 7 years older than we were at the time and who were the subject of jokes and innuendo, too. But the difference between 1972 and today is that back then we whispered our distasteful jokes to a cafeteria table of five or six close friends. We wouldn't have dreamed of broadcasting  boastful lies to the entire school through the loudspeaker system. But in a world of Twitter and Facebook feeds, today's kids and young adults are broadcasting their every thought to the world at large. All internet-based communication applications should come with the following warning: "Say nothing that you don't want the entire world to hear."

The fact is that this single event, even if it was entirely innocent, will now follow the young man (and the teacher) for the rest of their lives. When interviewing potential employees these days, as a manger I of course do a cursory level of internet research. Can you imagine wanting to hire somebody who has this kind of thing in their background when you do a Google search of his name?

A subject for another essay is the somewhat puzzling response in the community where this event took place. Because the young man in question is a popular kid, captain of several sports teams, the community has united behind him with a petition of more than 2,000 names asking for his school expulsion to be reversed (I have an uneasy suspicion that this is so he can lead a sports team in playoff action). Yes, it's possible that felony charges might be overkill for this transgression. But a month or two of school suspension to teach the lad a lesson certainly doesn't seem inappropriate. We're not talking about a kid being suspended for having a pen knife in the glove box of his car parked in the school parking lot. This is real stuff; effectively an assault on the teacher.

The local chief of police commented on this, wondering why the support was mobilizing behind the young man and not the young teacher who has been so badly humiliated and embarrassed by the event. And why is it, I wonder, that the young man and his family are maintaining such dead-fast silence. If I'm this kid's father, I grab him by the ear and lead him to a microphone. A public apology for the unintended consequences of his action might go along way to justifying a response of understanding and leniency toward him.

No doubt the family is acting on the advice of lawyers, who as we all know exist in their own make-believe world.


  1. Wow! Well-written response and on the nose. Timely, too, as we (daughter and I) have recently been having a discussion about this very sort of thing with my grandson (her son), who is autistic and has difficulty with social connections on a good day. We think we are getting through to him.

    Thank for this.

  2. How perfectly awful for that teacher. :( Frankly, I don't think any of us have really wrapped our heads around social networking yet. The consequences are so escalated because of the structure and reach. People are behaving on social networking as they do at parties, in locker rooms, hanging out with friends. I don't think it's that people think social networking is necessarily like a video game they can reset, they just haven't quite caught up with the notion that a) everyone can read it and b) it's permanent.

    But. I have two kids (middle- and high school) and I have noticed a steep decline in social networking by both of them. Teenagers are fleeing FB; not only are their too many adults lurking, but it causes way too much social stress. My kids prefer to avoid the hassle of potential hurt feelings (teens are already so easily wounded, social networking amps this up by a thousand percent), so they stick to texting. Not that texting is hazard-free, but it's much more like talking. It's one-to-one. Our brains are wired for small groups, we haven't yet learned how to socially interact with the entire planet all at once.

  3. The internet is just one example in a long list of the perils a teenager potentially faces. The core issue is the same for all of them: their brains are often not able to process the action with the consequences. The 'wiring' of their neural network in the pre-frontal brain is incomplete, it's still growing putting itself together. It's been said that the future to a fourth-grader is 3pm, when school gets out. The future to a teenager is the weekend ahead.A teen can process that drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes can get them kicked off a sports team, or from other school activities. The bigger issue of starting an addiction, or being involved somehow in a car accident and loss of life is beyond most teens ability to meaningfully process.

    This doesn't lessen their responsibility, but it does somewhat explain the lack of understanding on their part.

    There is no 'cure', except time. During this period it's their responsibility for their actions, and it's the parent's responsibility to help them understand. That's a toughie for many parents, and many lack the skills necessary to deal with the ups and downs that occur.

  4. I believe you have all your answers right in your column. The children were raised by children; the playoff game is far more important to both generations than the assault on the teacher.
    I wish I understood how this happens; children raising children. I brought up two daughters, one became a lovely, responsible adult, the other a selfish, self centered woman who abandoned her children, first mentally, then physically.

  5. A very necessary post, but I fear that only the converted will take notice. There is nothing pertinent that I can add to the comments made already. Thank you for publishing your thoughts.

  6. Too often these days the parents come to the defense of their little ones whereas in the old days they would have gotten a whuppin' at home.

  7. Excellent post. I agree with what you say and certainly affirm your admonition "say nothing that you don't want the entire world to hear." I fear that as people, certainly those who begin when they are young and more malleable, will be influenced by the "code of behavior", such as they are, in cyber world. Those realities, especially in the games and in the kind of social media snarking and bullying, are mostly uncluttered with things like law, regulations, civil code and true cannons of behavior. Increasingly actions in the cyber world are having terrible ramifications, as in the case you cite. Behavior in the cyberworld does have legal repercussions and the sooner kids, and others, learn that, the less likely we are to see children pushed to suicide, or teachers needlessly embarrassed.

    Now the matter about the young athlete being supported--well that reflects normative values, sadly.

  8. Did you see this story?


    Same general idea but with much greater consequences.

    1. Wow. Yeah, this is quite a story, Christian. What we say makes a difference, and nowhere more so than in cyberspace.

  9. Yeah, we're smack dab in the middle of a generation who hasn't known life without the internet, and who can't seem to be able to comprehend that what goes online stays online. Give a stupid kid a loud enough bullhorn and he's bound to get himself into a bind. Here's hoping that the wife and I will be able to raise a kid who's savvy enough not to blunder into such a stupid mistake. Remember kids, employers know how to surf the net, and are well aware of the power of Google cache...

  10. The apology/lawyer conundrum really strikes a chord. Never admit culpability, and yet, if you are guilty and you do feel remorse, an apology would go such a long way. The month or two suspension you suggest, however, is enough to make him fail for the year, depending on his grades because, typically, you can't turn in work and receive no credit for anything that takes place during your absence. I'm not saying that's right or wrong, I'm just asking...is that a just punishment. Consider this. You and your buddies are engaging in some conversation about that pretty school teacher at your lunch table, one of you maybe gets a little carried away and says, I tapped that (but in 1972 language). The cheerleader at the next table over overhears and spreads the cheer, and pretty soon the whole school is talking about it. What would the result of that have been? Pretty much nothing, I'm willing to bet, because it would have been kept in the community of the school and the parents. It's more harmful, what the modern kid did, but only because the technology is more dangerous, not because the kid is more dangerous. Of course, if the kid had been female and the teacher male, it would have been a whole different story, even in 1972.

  11. A 17 year old Halifax girl committed suicide last year - two years after having been raped by four boys. One of them posted pictures of the assault at school and on social media. The violation itself would have been difficult enough to overcome, but the harassment and humiliation she suffered proved to be the last straw.

    these kinds of stories are all too common and very sad.

  12. i wish I could have said these things as perfectly as you did. I agree wholeheartedly.

    Yes, social media can do a lot of good things. It can even change the world! However, the things you said in your post are on the flip side of all that. There is much about social media that is terrible, harmful and toxic. Every Tom, Dick and whack-job now have a forum.