Harvard University recently rescinded its acceptances of 10 students for posting "obscene memes". Evidently some members of the class formed a Facebook group in which they posted images and memes that mocked the Holocaust, sexual assault and child death (child death aimed at particular ethnic groups, as if plain ordinary child death weren't bad enough); were busted for it; and are... going somewhere other than Harvard for university.
They sound like great kids, right? Leaders of men.
Image credit: Sean MacEntee/Flickr
Stories of bad (or racist, or predatory, or criminal) behaviour exposed on social media have become commonplace. Those of us who like to think we're decent people, who would never post a racist meme because we know that racist memes are harmful, or who don't joke about sexual assault because we're sincerely sympathetic or empathetic to victims of sexual assault, may think, "Well, these rotten kids got what they deserved." (If they did, in fact, receive any punishment for their behaviour.)
But, even if we have pretty good kids, I do think it can be instructive to talk to our teens about these horrible events that blow up on social media -- not in an "If you're going to say something horrid, at least don't get caught" way -- but more in a "These incidents are a good reminder that apparently ordinary kids can do awful things" way, and teens have to be vigilant about intervening in -- or at the very least removing themselves from -- ugly, dangerous or foolish situations that their friends may be creating. And they need to feel a responsibility to contact parents, school administrators or law enforcement as the situation calls for it.
Below, a few recent headline-grabbing incidents that can be instructive for kids about peer pressure, humiliation, and the amplification powers of social media.
The University of Oklahoma Fraternity
In 2015, members of the University of Oklahoma's chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon were expelled after being caught on video singing a song that used the "n" word and referenced lynching, and chanting that the fraternity would never admit a black member. Incredibly, the fraternity's 79-year-old "house mother" was also filmed singing along with a rap song and repeating a racial slur. All parties, seeking forgiveness, insisted they were not racist. Uh-huh.
This a good moment to talk to your kids (if they're white) about the harm of racist speech and the importance of not joining clubs or in any way even associating with people who think that slurs are funny -- and recognising that you will never be so evolved that racial slurs can be used casually and ironically (which is, I believe, sometimes cited as a defence).
Unfortunately, there have been more than a few suicides that came on the heels of bullying on social media. Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, leapt off the George Washington Bridge in 2010 after his roommate and roommate's friend watched and tweeted about his having a sexual encounter with another man. Now what is the cautionary tale here? The roommate, Dharun Ravi, seems like a typical bully and a homophobe. But Ravi wasn't the only one involved here: Other students watched Clementi's encounter, and when Ravi posted on Twitter, not one of his friends or followers called him out on his behaviour. It's one thing to be the victim of a single bully; it's another to feel like no one in the community has the decency to challenge that bully.
There are likely many factors that led to Clementi's suicide, and certainly the primary actor in the bullying was his roommate, but the coverage of the case noted how many other bit players there were in this drama -- people who knew what was going on and didn't call out the roommate for his broadcasting Clementi's sex life or in any way step in to defend him.
If you want to have a talk with your kids about the right way to behave in these situations, show them the example of Clementi's RA, who knew a crappy situation when he saw one and offered support and counsel.
The Harvard Men's Soccer Team
Harvard again; you'd think kids this smart would know better. In 2012 the team published a "scouting report" on a Google group that rated the women on their looks and assigned them a hypothetical sex position. Harvard assigned its team of lawyers -- they must be busy -- to review the case, and the lawyers discovered that the practice was still going on in 2016. A tradition! The school cancelled the men's soccer season in 2016.
This is interesting and instructive for kids less for the administration's decision (and the men's team non-cooperation in the investigation), and more for the letter the members of the women's team published in response. While you're talking to your kids about structural sexism (and sexual racism, in the University of Oklahoma case), you can also talk about what it takes to actually dismantle those structures.
The women wrote:
[W]e are frustrated that this is a reality that all women have faced in the past and will continue to face throughout their lives.... We are concerned for the future, because we know that the only way we can truly move past this culture is for the very men who perpetrate it to stop it in its tracks.
In other words, it's not enough for the "good" boys on the team to not participate -- they also need to speak out against this behaviour when they see it. This is a good opportunity to talk about allies, or how people who aren't members of marginalised groups can stand up to injustice when they see it.
Teen Sexting Scandals
These kind of nude-picture scandals, again, are pretty numerous. Take the three high-school boys in Newtown, Connecticut who were charged with possessing and distributing child pornography and other offences. While the three boys were the only three kids charged in the scandal (presumably because they were allegedly selling the photos and videos), more than 50 students were involved in sharing the explicit images, and 20 of the students were referred to a community-based Juvenile Review Board.
The principal of the school said she wasn't sure that the students had an especially thorough understanding of the consequences of their actions. Twenty years ago, a teen getting naked with her boyfriend might later have regretted it, but at least there was no digital evidence; nowadays a regrettable incident lives on and on and can mushroom as images are shared from phone to phone.
This is a pretty clear conversation to have with kids: Don't take explicit pictures of yourself. Don't take explicit pictures of anyone else. And if someone sends you one, tell a parent or teacher. Your classmates don't deserve to have their private photos sent to anyone with a phone.
Teens often frame this kind of behaviour as "drama" rather than "bullying", because at least at the outset it means no one is either a victim or a perpetrator, and drama encompasses a wider range of bad and bad-ish behaviour than the simple targeted persecution of bullying. So your kids might be more willing to discuss these topics in those terms.
But the takeaway, when you're talking with your kids about all of these social media exhibitions of bad behaviour, is essentially the same: You don't want to be part of any drama. If things are turning ugly, and you can do so safely, you want to intervene or alert authorities. Ask yourself: Is this drama going to be on the front page of the New York Times? And do I want to be known as the guy who put a stop to it -- or the guy who just lost his spot at Harvard?