Social media and the Rutgers suicide

I’m sure you were disturbed, as I was, by the story of a young man who committed suicide when his sexual encounter was secretly captured on a video and posted on the Internet.  The tragedy is doubly sobering for me because it occurred at Rutgers University where I begin a social media teaching assignment in a few weeks.

I have read no fewer than three blog posts blaming the social web for this incident and after three it was time for me to stop reading.

Humans have an incredible capacity for evil. We like to think of ourselves as civilized but we are not. We are simply contained.

The social web shines a bright light on whatever humans are already doing, both good and bad.  Blaming the social web for human evil is like blaming a gun for a war.

Awhile ago I wrote a post predicting that by the end of 2011 there would be a social media crime or crisis that would force the channel to be legislated to some degree, probably around privacy.  I doubt this suicide was the case that will do it, but it is inevitable I’m afraid, not because of the inherent problem with the social web, but because of the inherent problems with people.

The Associated Press found at least 12 cases in the U.S. since 2003 in which children and young adults between 11 and 18 killed themselves after falling victim to some form of “cyberbullying” — teasing, harassing or intimidating with pictures or words distributed online or via text message.

In probably the best-known case, a 13-year-old girl hanged herself in 2006 after she received messages on MySpace — supposedly from a teenage boy — cruelly dumping her. An adult neighbor was later found guilty of taking part in the hoax, but the conviction was overturned.

The social web has the ability to heal, connect and create but unfortunately, like its human creators, it will always have the ability to destroy.

Illustration: Original news feed for this article can be found here.

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  • Mark, I’m glad to see you shine some light on this terrible tragedy, especially given that you will be teaching social media at the very school where this shameful misuse of social media took place: Rutgers…my alma mater.

    Allow me to note I have always known the Rutgers community to be open-minded and progressive. And I have got to believe that those who shamefully participated in this horrendous invasion of trust and privacy will come to recognize their real responsibility in the death of a young person with much promise.

    The tragedy speaks to bigotry in America and the failure of our society to instill some basic standards in young people who somehow consider preying on the private moments and sexual orientation of others as a fair game. The vehicle for this tragedy was social media, but its roots are much deeper.

    Social networks are powerful tools — users get to determine whether for good or evil. In this case, the users showed the terrible consequences that can come with its despicable misuse.

  • Mark

    @Glen — I am literally sickened by this crime. I grieve for the death of this young man, his family and the Rutgers community. And I grieve for this emerging society that conditions bright young university students to post their lives online like a bizarre reality show.

    This could have happened anywhere and probably will unfortunately.

    Thank you for lending this your esteemed voice to this discussion, Glen.

  • Mark, I’m extremely saddened and horrified by these events, and I agree with both you and Glen that we have some societal issues that need to be addressed. Technology, specifically social media, is an amplifier. I’m believe these issues have always existed, but we now have readily-accessible technology to broadcast both the good and bad to a larger audience. My frustration as both a parent and professional educator is that we have failed (and continue to fail) to teach good digital citizenship. Too often our answer to lousy online behavior has been either to stick our heads in the sand or to block, ban, or legislate access to the very tools that could help us to “heal, connect and create.” Instead, we must proactively teach our children and each other how to be responsible, honorable users of technology.

  • Mark, I am heartened by you confronting this issue and by the measure of your response.

    Philip, I am equally heartened to hear your use of the phrase “good digital citizenship” and your view that we must provide some guidance as to what constitutes “good digital citizenship.” This tragedy cries out for such instruction.

    Social media is still in its infancy. We must do all that we can to ensure that it is a force for good and that its usage is understood to come with serious responsibilities and consequences.

  • Johnny

    Students’ insensitivity to others has always been around even before the days of social media, really, just due to being naive. Social media has just given them another “weapon” to take that insensitivity a step further.

    They have to learn that they will be held accountable for their actions. Though I hate the fact that new laws may have to be made to counter these acts of stupidity, they are probably needed since students aren’t likely to learn proper conduct anytime soon.

  • Jim LeBlanc

    This event was a wake-up call to me. Yes, I remember reading your article Mark saying that this kind of thing would happen but it is shokcing when it really does. I mean a young man is dead because of a YouTube video?? We use YouTube for fun and information and sharing. Now it is being used to humiliate and destroy lives? I’ve been thinking about YouTube’s role and responsibility in this too and am not sure I’m clear about that. They are the smoking gun though aren’t they?

  • Mark

    Thanks for the insights. Philip, I think you’re on to something with thie digital citizenship notion.

    Why wouldn’t we make this part of the curriculum at the gradeshool level. It would certainly be a more important life skill than handwriting.You have my wheels turning on this one.

    Jim, I don’t know about the YouTube angle. I’m sure when you establish an account you probably sign away any culpability they would have for legal implications, copyrights, etc. The bigger issue is, with the volume of uploads they receive every day, how would monitoring even be possible?

    Hopefully we’ll get some more views on these issues. Very timely and vital discussion. Thank you!

  • I too am saddened by the incident, but all social media has done is put a bright light not only on the bullies, but also on those sick enough to watch it.

    Consider the FB worm that was recently spread with the “Shocking: watch what this father/daughter did” headline. What did it say about the person who clicked on that title? I didn’t want to see whatever it was so I was safe, but as I watched grandfathers and others appear in my timeline, I wondered, what prompted them to want to see that picture? I was embarrassed for them and then I thought, is it telling me something about them I didn’t know?

    We cannot blame technology for inherent character flaws such as bullying and voyeurism. The challenge is ages old: morality cannot be legislated. Yes, regulations may add some restraint, but meanness and poor taste will still exist even when it is removed from public view.

  • Mark

    !Linda It’s a whole new world isn’t it? I woner how many relationships, friendships and families have been destroyed by Facebook?

  • Mark, I was just talking to a friend the other day about how happy I am that Facebook (heck, the web in general) wasn’t around when I was in school. High school is such a miserable experience for some and kids are so mean that I’m not sure I would have made it without trying to take my life. People say really awful things when they’re hiding behind a computer (or phone) screen. Couple that with your lack of self-confidence during high school and college and it’s a recipe for disaster.

    I’m not sure how the web will be regulated, but I think you’re right – it’s inevitable. Perhaps it’s in the way of our losing net neutrality. I don’t know…

  • Hi Mark! Anything you can do to turn the focus of future users off of the ME in Social MEdia would be a significant contribution indeed. The social web is a channel – it holds no ability to do anything but broadcast what is fed into it. Facebook, etc. does not destroy friendships and families – poor choices actioned by human beings do that through a variety of channels, social MEdia being but one.

    Do you create the curriculum for this pending teaching assignment? If so, this is a powerful opportunity to shift perspective.

    Imagine if you linked course content to the neuro-developmental constructs of social cognition/intelligence! You could share language and guidelines in the areas of Verbal Pragmatics (Communication/Interpretation of Feelings, Topic Selection and Maintenance, Conversational Technique, etc.), Social Behaviours (Self-Marketing, Social Information Processing, Social Control Regulation, Etc.) and even Political Acumen (nurturing positive relationships with others).

    Tragic situations, like the ones you’ve highlighted in your post, are wake-up calls for better action going forward. As a race, we have so much potential. And to date, we often fall far short of our capacities.

    I’m grateful you are an anti-destroyer Mark. Shine on …

  • Mark, I do remember that blog! It’s a terrible tragedy to see something like this happen. And there are numerous other examples (and many more that never became public). What’s really interesting is that people are so stupid to think they can get away with it. In all cases, the perpetrators were caught and punished for everything from cyber-bullying to invasion of privacy. So, a warning to everyone: Beware of what you post online! The consequences could be catastrophic (to you and others) and the proof you did it is on record for ever. There is nowhere to hide.

  • Mark

    @Gini — I agree. Can’t imagine the pressure these kids are under today with their live son review like this. Thanks for taking the time to contribute.

    @Sally — I do have some influence on the curriculum but unfortunately I think the work needs to be done much sooner than college. I am thinking though about ways I might be able to have an impact. I feel strongly about Internet safety. Thank you!

    @Steve — Wow, what a startling comment and I agree. Thanks, Steve.

  • I completely agree with you. I think classes in ethics, safety, responsibility and the benefits of media and social media are what we should be teaching our children. Deciding that social media is the problem is not the answer. We should instead being teaching and preventing such acts of unkindness – because whether we have social media or not they would be still be occuring.

  • Mark W Schaefer

    @Rachel I have been thinking about what we can proactively do to raise awareness about this and have a few ideas. Thanks for taking the time to contribute your thoughts!

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