Recent weeks have brought worst-case reminders of the possible real-world implications of young people’s digital interactions. A litany of incriminating text messages led to a guilty verdict in the case of Michelle Carter, charged with involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, to take his own life. Harvard University announced that it had rescinded offers of admission to a group of students found to have exchanged offensive memes in a private Facebook chat. The Snapchats, Internet searches, and text messages of a group of Penn State fraternity brothers will be evidence in a criminal case arising from a horriffic hazing death.
We asked Carrie James, a sociologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who explores connections between young people’s digital, moral, and civic lives, to share perspectives on the Carter/Roy case, as well as takeaways for parents and educators.
What does a guilty verdict in the Michelle Carter/Conrad Roy case mean for the continuing project of teaching young people to be aware of and accountable for what they do/say/post on digital and social media?
The guilty verdict, whether appropriate or not, for Michelle Carter definitely underscores the importance of encouraging youth to pause and consider the implications of their texts, tweets, and other digital interactions with friends and peers.
Shifting the perspective to Conrad Roy, the case also highlights a need for attention to the intensity of relationships that youth can form through digital communication. Roy and Carter's text-messaging relationship had a degree of intensity, and arguably disinhibition, that may have clouded judgment on both sides. Digital media at once bring us closer than perhaps we should be, and also keep us at a remove, at a distance, in which the other person — what they feel, believe, intend to do, and its real results — may not be quite fully real. This highlights the need to help youth consider what “proper distance” between youth and their friends and intimate partners looks like in a digital age and how to establish boundaries. This issue echoes the work of Emily Weinstein and Bob Selman on forms of digital stress — including intimacy being a source of stress for some youth.
How can educators and parents protect vulnerable young people from risky behavior and interactions on social media? What should they look out for and keep in mind in their own in-person and personal interactions with students?
Educators and parents can encourage youth to slow down, reflect, and take a step back when they read and respond to the flow of content and messages on social media. This could take a number of forms: a suggested “wait (and reflect)” time before responding to texts that cause an immediate, negative emotional reaction; a check-in with a friend or adult about a troubling text and a draft response (some youth in our studies suggested that this was routine for them); or a request to “take it offline” and talk in person in order to get a proper read on tone and gravity of a situation or conflict between friends.
How can we teach our children to be good digital citizens — to care for their friends online, even when peer pressure is making them feel they have to join in on the sarcastic/mean comments, or share the photo of a sleepover your good friend wasn’t invited to?
Some of the strategies I mentioned above are relevant here, though they are more focused on an interchange between two individuals. Considering a larger audience — including the friend who was excluded from the sleepover — requires routinely thinking beyond one’s immediate circle and considering the perspectives of many different audiences for one’s posts. This is challenging given the peer pressure you mention or the draw of wanting to share a fun photo — but also given the large online networks that some youth have. Also, perspective-taking is hard and is certainly not fool-proof. You can attempt to take another person’s perspective — and trying is always worthwhile — but you can’t assume you got it right.
Given these challenges, it’s important for young people to consider what is best shared within a smaller group, via text or snap, as opposed to an entire Instagram or Facebook friend group.
Common Sense Media offers a variety of well-tested tools and strategies for parents who want to take control of the technology that fills kids' lives.
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Carrie James is a research associate and a principal investigator at Project Zero and a lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A sociologist by training, Her research explores young people's digital, moral, and civic lives.