, Salem, MA


March 28, 2013

Watson: Ohio rape case indicts social media

The recent trial and guilty verdicts for two Steubenville, Ohio, high school football stars certainly got a lot of attention, and touched on many issues.

The duo’s crime was to sexually molest a 16-year-old girl while she was passed out — so drunk after a party that she was unconscious. In addition, the boys photographed and videotaped their actions — which lasted hours — and used various forms of social media to publicize, disseminate and brag about what they were doing. They texted and tweeted and sent photos across the Internet as they were violating the prone girl.

To compound the damage, their friends — and mere observers — at other parties and at home also continued to pass along the photos and texts, and nobody intervened during the long, live event to halt the wrongful behavior. At some point, a video of the incident was uploaded onto YouTube, and it was watched by thousands.

I cannot know what emotions and thinking governed the behavior of the many participants of this event, but there is the distinct possibility that the two young perpetrators were influenced and encouraged by their awareness that they were the objects of attention of their own peer-followed, social media world.

In the same way that young males who have just received their driver’s licenses will drive cautiously and safely when alone, but drive speedily and with daring when they have friends in the car, that dynamic — the urge to look “big” and impress peers — is sometimes behind the nonstop postings, tweeting, texting and connections to the online world.

Computers, the Web and the digital communications revolution have brought many wonderful opportunities and an egalitarian ease and openness to the ability of people to connect, but there are also serious negative effects that are gradually altering our social and behavioral norms and patterns.

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