Hello…Is There Anybody in There?

“……there’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.”  –  Pink Floyd

Imagine if you will, or can, the not so distant past, before social networking came along.  The days before Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, Pintrest, Instagram, and the myriad of others currently dotting the technospere. Can you do it? Because the majority of people in this country, 21 years of age and younger, can’t.

Seems like I can find a story daily about someone getting into trouble at school, being denied entrance into college or the military, or being turned down or fired by an employer, due to posts on social media. And lest you think I’m only picking on kids, we’ve all seen our share of public meltdowns by adults(?) also. (See Richie Incognito)

When my daughter was a young teen, before social media, she kept a diary.  I have to believe that a majority of girls, raised in that era, did the same.  I have no idea what she wrote in there, and chances are, it was best that way.  Those were her innermost secrets. Some of which she may have only shared with a whisper to her very best friend(s).  I never had a son, but based on my youth, I know that boys also kept some fairly personal secrets, shared, possibly, only with their bestie.  Now, what if all those diaries, journals, and secrets were available to, and being read by every teacher, college recruiter, potential employer and the world in general?  Whether you like it or not, that’s essentially what is happening in the here and now, and kids (and apparently their parents) are either oblivious to it, or just don’t care.

Back in the 90’s, during the heyday of AOL (yes dial-up), I taught internet safety classes for parents and teachers. At the time, AOL would allow their users to set up “profiles” which would include all sorts of information, which could then be searched.(Sound familiar Facebook users?)  I would run an AOL profile search for a local school, and then print them out with the kid’s names redacted. These were then presented to parents and teachers for their review. Maybe the mistake I made was in redacting the names, because no one wanted to claim ownership of the 13 year old boy who listed a hobby of “huffing Glade” before school, or the 12 year old girl who “loves to have sex with her 19 year old boyfriend,  when her parents aren’t home”. We can put those times into the “good old days” column, because things are infinitely worse now.

It used to be that, if you wanted to argue with, offend or bully someone, it required that you knew that person, or had some type of physical encounter with them.  Now, you can offend, argue with or generally piss off someone you’ve never met, two miles away, the next town over, in another state or somewhere you can’t pronounce or find on a map on the other side of the world.  Hang out on any social media site for more than a millisecond and you’ll see examples of inappropriate behavior. Hell, click into any Reddit conversation and you won’t need to wait a whole millisecond.  But how did we get to this point?

In many cases, the mistaken perception of anonymity, on the internet, comes back to haunt users, and many social media sites shoulder some of the blame.  Facebook prohibits “fake accounts”, but thousands, if not millions, exist with no apparent recourse. That being said, anyone with technical research skills can be very adept at figuring out who is behind an account, and if the recent headlines concerning the NSA are any indication, no one is safe from having their information intercepted, analyzed, and categorized for future reference. (German Chancellor Angela Merkel)

Another argument I often hear is “Freedom of Speech” (1st Amendment). Yes, we Americans enjoy the right and freedom of speech. But, that doesn’t mean that your hate speech, bullying or threats can’t be used against you. Bottom line? Don’t want to be branded as a bully, racist, bigot or ignoramous? Don’t post bullying, bigoted, racist or ignorant comments on social media and/or public forums. “I was just kidding”, “my post was taken out of context”, “I was drunk”, or “that was a private message”, no longer fly as excuses.

I always have, and always will encourage college and military recruiters and potential employers to do extensive, social media background checks on potential candidates.  They should also have comprehensive policies in place to avoid future embarrassment to their institutions.  And parents? If you are incapable, or unwilling to guide your children on social media, you’re failing at your job.

I never would have considered telling the world that I got totally wasted the night before my SATs, or the night before I left for the military, or…… (I’m just kidding, this is a private blog and I’m merely exercising my 1st Amendment rights.)

Added 11/13/13:  Interesting article here.

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