Teens shamed online for being racist. Karma or casualty of social media?

I have read a few articles (like this one) that delight in sharing stories of teens around the nation tweeting racist or just outright ignorant messages regarding the recent election. One teen’s foolishness became viral as she suggested she move to Australia to escape the U.S. (here). The question remains: do teens really understand that digital is forever? There were doubtless millions of teens who didn’t tweet anything offensive, but the ones that did will soon find that the punishment will be far greater than the crime. The messages are inexcusable and disciplinary actions surely need to follow, but is it fair to the teen that because of the media firestorm that has thrust these messages into the limelight, these students may find the messages branded to their very being for life?

Many might look at tweeting similar to using a firearm or a car. We trust teens to use these despite the very real danger they could hurt themselves or others in irretrievable ways. We may see it as being along the same lines of responsibility, but unfortunately, many teens do not.

In my experience with teens (15 years worth), teens see words as simply an extension of their own teeth, a part of their being that can be held in or let out at will. They understand that some people are sensitive to words, that there are bad words, and that there are situations they should watch what they say, but most don’t understand the permanence of those words. In their social bubbles, stupid things are said. If the reaction is negative, it is easily taken back and apologized for. If not, life goes on. After all, teens recognize easily that other teens do the same thing. However, when teens feel anonymous, as they might on Xbox Live, Reddit, or other venues where anonymity is allowed, they become far bolder and unapologetic.

And then there is Twitter. Teens seem to know that Facebook is fairly public (which it doesn’t have to be), but see Twitter as fairly exclusive. The feeling may be that if they only follow close friends, and only close friends follow them, then it’s a closed forum. What they do not understand is that Twitter is a worldwide billboard–searchable and open for all to see. Furthermore, many teens feel a sense of anonymity on Twitter because they perceive perhaps that what they post is not really paid attention to. These uneducated assumptions are where teens get in trouble.

I feel it is our distinct duty as educators to understand social media (not just use it), and teach students the dangers of worldwide expression before they make stupid mistakes they can’t take back.

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