Friday, June 16, 2017

The Freedom (and Consequences) of Our Students' Digital Speech

In the past two weeks, two big news reports based in my home state of Massachusetts demonstrate how crucial it is to teach our children about the impact even the smallest online communication can have. Despite these stories with no winners, we shouldn't censor our children. We should encourage them to share their highest quality work online, and have ongoing conversations with them about being upstanders when "drama" happens among their peers online. Here are the specifics:



Harvard Withdraws Acceptances

Harvard University revoked the admissions offers of 10 incoming freshman – recently graduated high school seniors – who created their own messaging group. The creation of the group was not the problem. According to the report in the Harvard Crimson, the prospective students "sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children." The story made national news. It wasn't because of a few rescinded acceptances, a common practice for colleges this time of year. It is because of the reason for rescinding was new.

Michelle Carter's Verdict

Today, in a courthouse in Taunton, Massachusetts, Michelle Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter of Conrad Roy in a bench trial. Once again, it isn't the charge and trial that are shocking. It is the evidence and context for how Carter acted. According to the New York Times, "When he became sick from the fumes and stepped out, prosecutors said, Ms. Carter ordered him by phone [in a text message] to 'get back in.'” Roy was found dead in his car the next day.

In both cases, it was digital messages sent by teens in seemingly private contexts that led to serious public and life-changing consequences. When talking to your teens – whether they are your children or your students – about these two situations, here are some key messages they need to hear:

1. Be the Real You at All Times

Whether words are verbalized face-to-face or typed in a text message, they are representing your thoughts and your personality. What do you want people to think about when they think of your name? Are you someone who adds energy and positivity to a conversation? Are you someone who lifts others up? Are others grateful for the information and messages you share?

2. Take Care of Yourself and the People You Care About

At some point each of us will face a difficult situation due to online communication. Some of us will be a target, some of us will see a friend suffering as a target, and some of us will see a debate raging about an issue that touches close to home. Ask your teens: What will you do? Will you take action that matters without contributing to a toxic online dialogue? Will you stand up for the people who need allies? Will you show calm reasoned strength in the midst of a negative online tornado?

3. Nothing is Private. Harness the Power of Public.

Both of the examples above involve messages and media exchanged between teenagers who believed they had privacy. Whether our shares are in the form of public posts, DMs, or text messages, the Harvard and Carter cases both illustrate the risk we take when tapping Post, Publish, or the share arrow. Rather than taking in this information and feeling handcuffed, our youth should feel empowered to make great change with the tap of a keyboard. If nothing is private, imagine how many people could be reached with innovative ideas, new artwork, and fresh music. Use this power of sharing for good! Avoid getting bogged down in any negativity.

How will we parents and educators frame this new era of online communication – and consequences – for the children and teens we care about? Will we fill our conversations with warnings and negativity? Or will we share these stories so that our children can feel a sense of duty to better represent their generation and build a positive vibe that drowns out the negativity?

Perhaps you think my ideas seem naive. I assert that they are not.

The balance of sharing positivity and protecting against negativity is the key to cracking open the digital world we all want for the future.