Society as a whole has a lot to learn about internet privacy and etiquette. Adults are constantly having to educate themselves in order to teach kids how to be safe and smart. We never really think we need to worry about what they are saying about us.
I was afraid to share this story since it is highly personal. I have been assured -and you can see for yourself by visiting their blog- that this is already a very public case.
How we behave online has long-living and far-reaching consequences. Once it is typed and posted it is like Frankenstein, alive and uncontrollable. Thank you Anthony and Christina for telling this story and for reminding us to take social media seriously with our kids. Please check out their blog at The Plagued Parent.
The lawyer said a single deposition would cost around $2000. He said there would certainly be more than one. Looking at my wife I couldn’t help but think, “Is this what it has come to.” She looked disappointed. We had hoped for some resolution, some redress, and for lack of a better word some satisfaction. But that was not to be the case. You see, our daughter had published lies about us on her blog. Granted she took them down before we had met with the lawyer but the damage was done. It was out there. Who could say how far it had gotten.
I remember thinking that her posting on her blog was akin to taking out a billboard. “No,” the lawyer said. “It’s not like that. It is worse.”
His partner chimed in, “It is more as if a plane dragging a banner flew around you for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for decades. That is what its like when something is posted to the Internet.”
I have a better analogy albeit far more graphic and disgusting – Internet posts are like digital herpes. You can ignore it, but it’ll never go away, and the discomfort remains just below the surface even after they have been deleted.
My wife and I left that meeting frustrated and disappointed. Despite the fact that my daughter had removed the language from her blog post there is no way of telling who may have seen it. What some have suggested is that she is just a rebellious run-away teen who made an immature and irrational decision to post something libelous. On one level this may be true. However underlying this, beyond the “what the hell was she thinking” reaction, is the fact that people use cyberspace as a way to perpetuate their version of events despite their veracity or lack thereof.
This, I suppose is the major parenting challenge. We’ve heard over and over the dangers inherent within social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. As parents we are encouraged to monitor what our children say and with whom they are engaging online. For the most part we are keenly aware of the inherent attraction presented by the lure of easy and instantaneous online interaction as well as the dangers of overdosing on the instant gratification wrapped into the adolescent need to be “liked” and “followed”.
Professor of psychology Catherine Steiner-Adiar assessment in an NPR interview last year when she stated that for the teens using social media the pattern becomes (and I am paraphrasing) “I feel therefore, I tweet and I post.” Over time that evolves into, “I tweet and I post so that I can feel.” The emotional underpinnings entwining our culture’s connection and fascination with social media can, in my opinion, tap into the worst aspect our personalities contain. That is the need to be seen, the desire to be known, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to be seen and known at any given moment in time.
For adolescents this poses a problem. As parents, finding that balance between holding our teens accountable for their online actions and allowing them freedom of expression becomes precarious. I believe our default position should involve three things – common sense, honesty and courtesy. Despite this however, social media dominates our cultural interactions to the degree of near-debilitation.
The reason we can’t keep our thumbs away from updating, liking, and hash tagging was explored in a study conducted by Harvard University’s Psychology Department that found that there is a biological reward that happens when people disclose information about themselves. “Self-disclosure was strongly associated with increased activation in brain regions that form the mesolimbic dopamine system, including the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area,” the study reported. Rewards were magnified when participants knew that their thoughts would be communicated to another person. So why are we so enmeshed in the allure of social media? It’s because we’re programmed that way. (http://www.alternet.org/personal-health/social-media-dependency-has-become-mental-health-issue)
If our brain “rewards” us for self-disclosure, then it becomes imperative for us to train our children, especially teens, appropriate methods and means of disclosure. This can be particularly dangerous for teens struggling with depression, mental illnesses or issues relating to identity or personality disorders. Once the persona is crafted linguistically and visually online, it becomes “real”. Any validation received could reinforce a view of self that may or may not be based in reality, or the “true” self.
I recall a conversation with the psychiatrist treating my daughter after her first hospitalization. He said, upon discharge, it might not be a bad idea to limit, if not eliminate social media during her recovery at home. The fear was that she might lapse into re-creating an alternate reality and that would only exacerbate her depression and undermine her recovery since depression affects the way a brain works and thinks.
Too often, conversations about child development focus on what a child can do and how to make it happen faster, when instead we should be talking about how a child can think, how the developing young brain is prepared to process experience, and how we can support that growth in healthy ways. We know now that it takes twenty-five- plus years for the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that enables us to link consequences to behavior (called executive functioning) to fully develop. In the adolescent brain executive functioning is still a work in progress, neurologically not yet a fully functioning piece of a teen’s decision-making process. So it falls to us. (Catherine Steiner-Adiar, The Big Disconnect, Ch. 1)
Bearing this in mind, as parents we need to assist our adolescent’s “executive function” by reinforcing standards of behavior that we deem appropriate online, offline and out in the world. Our failure to do so could, in fact provide more harm than help to our children’s psychosocial growth.
Following the series of life events we faced over the past several months, my wife and I decided to begin a blog. The notion really took hold after we met with lawyers seeking advice over how to handle the potential damage of my daughter’s post. Despite our best efforts as parents – checking her Facebook, reading her Twitter, monitoring texts and Snap chats – we still failed to get the message through. What you do online does not go away. What you say can hurt people. What you show can hurt people.
After our meeting, one of the lawyers remarked that we were basically sitting in the nexus of timely story. We inhabited, and still do, an intersection where cyberspace, social media, mental illness, family strife, and the mental health medical establishment all collide. Paraphrasing the attorney, he believed the overall narrative to be compelling and story worth telling – perhaps the courts were not the place to do that.
During the intervening months since that meeting we’ve discovered that truth is a very amorphous thing for some people. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I know that everyone has their version of events and that no two people see the same thing the same way. I am not naive. Perception is really the expression of bias, and what resides at the heart of what occurs relative to online is the careful manipulation and crafting of perceptions. Essentially it is marketing. Except here we’re not selling goods or services, we are selling a self that is suited for mass consumption.
Individuals craft personae that they desire. Everyone online does it. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are really nothing more than vehicles for individual marketing campaigns. Sure users can rationalize that they use Facebook to contact old friends and keep in touch and that may be true. However to a greater degree users of social media are curating the self. Let’s be honest – nothing in your life is really so compelling that the world awaits with bated breath for you to add another photo of a batch of cookies or display your participation in a social event you are only marginally involving yourself in.
Who, or what, is the curated self? I define it as the self we are consciously producing on a regular basis that is designed for public consumption, and it is a self that is displayed publically with commentary that limits interpretation. Essentially it is pandering to some degree. It is a version of the self that fits within restrictive parameters that our “followers” or “friends” will respond to. For a certain demographic – those between the ages of 12 -24 – this curated self seems designed to generate positive reinforcement for our “experiences”. Some worry more about “likes” than being liked and being liked requires us to act and interact with selfless rather than selfish intent.
But what is actually being experienced: a reality or some limited version of the real that fits within the viewfinder of a 4-inch screen? Perhaps you could argue once again that this is mere perception. My daughter perceived a reality and she posted language reflecting that reality. But is that the truth? One attorney attempted to explain it such that if one believes something to be true, then it is true for that individual, and then you cannot really limit their ability to speak that truth.
Granted. However, where’s the line. Generally speaking libel (the written) can be can be proven if
(i) the defendant conveyed a defamatory message they knew or should have known to be false; (ii) the material was published (i.e., conveyed to someone other than you); (iii) you can be identified as the person referred to in the defamatory material; and (iv) you suffered an injury to your reputation as a result of the communication.
Our situation clearly met all the criteria and yet to avail oneself of the civil justice system requires major resources. Throughout the process what would be called into question, most likely, would be the two key terms of “perception” and “truth”.
For me this becomes simple. Act online the way you would in the world. If you aren’t capable of saying something to a person’s face, then don’t say it online. Cyberspace, for all of the ways it can bring people together and transcend the notions of time and space, really becomes an emotional minefield of character where we reveal our mostly aspirational selves made concrete through pixels and text. We seem to demonstrate through social media our “perfect” selves – look at the happy family, see my vacation, gawk at the Go Pro video of me strolling through the world.
Our point of view is just that, a perspective; perspective however is not a reality in and of itself. We assemble our world anecdotally. That being said, cyberspace allows for us to manipulate our persona not only visually but linguistically as well. This murky space between image and word is the perilous locale for deception. Chiefly our online persona contains more emotional value than any intrinsic worth. To quote Socrates: “A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.”
Anthony Amore is a professor of English who teaches writing and literature at a community college in southern New England where he lives with his wife and family. His fiction, poetry and non-fiction can be read at The Plagued Parent, a blog site maintained by he and his wife, Christina (http://www.theplaguedparent.com).