SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 28, 2013

Watson: Ohio rape case indicts social media

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — 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.

The preoccupation of many teens with their online image and popularity — and reciprocally, the online profiles and activities of their friends — has the troubling effect (by degrees, of course) of removing them from their actual surroundings, distancing them from live, ongoing activities and experiences, and sometimes reinforcing a cramped, self-centered sense of things and confusing them about what is meaningful and what is not.

Like reality TV shows, which shill and celebrate the possibility that you — you — can be famous and a star if only you do something outrageous, gross, funny, sensational or dangerous enough, the many online social media mechanisms promote the idea that your worth and attractiveness is closely linked to your online persona.

Look at the desire of so many people — not just teens — to be recognized in a video that “goes viral.” Some teens, with a multitude of motivations, spend inordinate amounts of time curating their Facebook pages.

For young teens — because they’ve never known a world without Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — there is a real danger that they do not recognize the online world for quite the peripheral construct that it is. The Internet can be a dictionary, an encyclopedia, a telephone, a TV, a political organizing tool or a wonderful connector of people, but it is not life itself, and it carries no inherent meaning.

If questioned, teens may understand that, but nonetheless the time they invest in social media influences their perspectives and reactions to life, and it affects their paths and journeys continually.

For teens, the Steubenville incident can be a cautionary tale, and it can stimulate them to think about their relationship with Facebook, with their online presence and the hold that social media have on them generally. Teens correctly are very concerned about developing their identities — who they are — so they should ask questions continually about who, or what, they are giving their online energy and allegiances to, and why. The Web is a wonderful tool, but Facebook, online advertisers, cookie planters, data-miners and global corporations are all thrilled every time you log on. And they are not unhappy if you are chasing an image that you think will impress others.

Who would you be, what would you do, if you didn’t have to post on Facebook? What would your identity be if you didn’t have to compare it constantly to the Web-projected identities of others?

Long before the Internet existed, adolescent boys have molested drunken girls. Facebook and smartphones just allow them now to share their exploits with larger, gawking audiences. That it was second nature for the boys to photograph, video, text, tweet and post their activities — with the deliberate intent that they be showcased online — is the development that makes me wonder about teen bedazzlement with the digital world. Does all that is actually real need to be affirmed by its presence on the Web?

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Brian T. Watson is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at watson@nii.net.