Anonymous Messaging: A Matter of Character

If you had the opportunity to say anything you wanted to say in a public forum and no one would ever know it was you saying it, what would you say? Would you reveal a secret that was eating away at you? Would you confess your love for someone? Would you ask a question that you had always been too embarrassed to ask? What about your child? What would your child say? Suppose your first thought was to say something slanderous or vicious about a situation or another person. Even if it was, I am sure that as a mature adult you would have the self-restraint and moral compass to steer clear of that initial urge. But what about your adolescent child? Brain research has revealed that as children enter adolescence the level of brain development they experience is equal to that of when they were first born. With so much development taking place it is necessary for the brain to focus its energy on the growing areas and pay less attention to others. Unfortunately, one of neglected areas is the part of the brain that is responsible for decision-making. For this reason, a ten-year-old child will tend to make better decisions than a thirteen year old. This may seem surprising to you, unless of course, you have a thirteen year old at home. Teenagers make bad decisions all the time; this is nothing new. What is new, however, is that these bad decisions are being made in public forums through social media and the repercussions can be devastating.

I was motivated to write down my thoughts on this issue because of events that took place in my hometown recently. The events came about because of an app called Yik Yak. Yik Yak, as you may know, is an anonymous messaging app that allows you to see posts from anyone using the app within a 5-mile radius of where you are. It was created by two college students at Furman University with the idea that it could be used as a communication forum on college campuses (read more). The problem is anyone can download the app, so it didn’t take long for high school students to discover it and start using their diminished judgments to send messages. The results? Two schools went into lockdown because posts were made about guns being brought to school with the intent of shooting people. Police were dispatched to the various campuses to ensure student safety, and the city’s district attorney scrambled to identify the creator of the anonymous threat. The following day another school went into lockdown because of a similar message on Yik Yak.

These are serious issues. Fortunately, in situations such as these, authorities have the ability to track down exactly who posts these “anonymous” threats. By Thursday of the same week the teenager responsible for the first messages was arrested, and it wasn’t long before the second teenager was identified as well.

As disturbing as all of this is, there is something else to this story that is haunting me. A friend of mine who was at one of the schools that experienced the initial threat showed me her phone (she had the Yik Yak app). I was of course upset by the threat of guns on campus, but I was also profoundly disturbed by the other slanderous messages I read. Students were using the forum to viscously attack fellow classmates. Although some people are prone to bullying without the aid of an anonymous forum, others seemed to be taking the opportunity to say some of the most vile and disturbing things about others that they would never dare say if the knew their names would be attached to it.

Someone could argue that these actions are just part of the lack of good judgment that comes with the adolescent physiological changes. For me, however, this goes beyond what brain research has uncovered: this is a matter of character. As a fifth grade teacher (and I know many other teachers who do this as well) I define character for my students as what we do when we think no one else is looking. Are we instilling in our children the kind of moral compass that would allow them to resist the temptation to anonymously tear down a fellow student? Are we teaching our children what it means to have good character?

These, of course, are not easy questions to answer. I know we would all like to think that our children would be above submitting vicious, slanderous, or even criminal comments in an anonymous forum, but how would we know for sure? The truth is we wouldn’t know, unless we were unfortunate enough to be the parents of the students mentioned earlier that were arrested for making terrorist threats. So what can we do? An obvious answer is to closely monitor what our children are doing electronically through text messages, online forums, emails, etc. But for me, it also goes back to the question I posed at the beginning of this writing; what would you say in an anonymous forum? If your inclination would be to say something malicious, how could you expect something different from your child? As much as our adolescent children don’t want to admit it, parents (and teachers) are powerful role models. They continue to watch and learn from us even when we think they are no longer paying attention.

Inevitably, we all made stupid mistakes as teenagers. The mistakes made by today’s teens however, have the potential to be broadcast across the entire community (or worse, the world). Making a concerted effort to focus on character development and morality may be the best defense for keeping our children safe in this technologically enhanced brave new world.



A Teacher’s Lesson

(This article was originally published in the Press Register in August of 2012: see the article. )


Children are the same no matter where you go. They are the same beautiful, innocent, curious, and inquisitive creatures no matter the culture, the climate, or the politics. I learned that this summer, but it took going to the other side of the world to figure it out.

My name is Joe Gaston and I am a teacher who lives by the words of John Cotton which state, “Who dares to teach must never cease to learn”. I try to keep an open mind and remember that I can learn something from everyone. Sometimes I learn things from my colleagues, many times I learn things from my students, and I always learn something from my wife. As a teacher I am encouraged and expected to expand my knowledge through professional development opportunities during the school year and especially during the summer. This summer I was given a learning opportunity that I will never forget.

It started this past spring when I was asked to join a team that would create ExxonMobil’s very first international teachers academy. Under the direction and guidance of Dr. Joe Sciulli, we assembled a five day academy for upper elementary teachers in the country of Qatar. The whole process of putting the academy together was exciting and a great learning experience. The best part, however, was getting to go to Qatar during the month of June to be part of the faculty. It was an opportunity of a lifetime and one that helped this southerner expand his horizons.

I didn’t quite know what to expect when we arrived in Doha, the capital city of Qatar. Although I had the opportunity to travel to a few places and meet people of different nationalities when I was younger, my experiences with people from the Middle East were minimal at best. In fact, most of what I had learned about the Middle East and those of the Islamic faith came after 9/11. Needless to say I was a little concerned about how we would be received when we arrived.

I am happy to report that we were treated very well while we were in Qatar. The city was beautiful, the participants were delightful, and the academy was a success. Along with the revelation I mentioned at the beginning of this story, here are a few other things I discovered:

  • All children want to learn through engaging activities that stimulate the mind, and will quickly turn their attention to other things when the teacher fails to provide them.
  • It doesn’t matter if you are in the United States or Qatar; teachers face the same challenges in trying to educate their students. I was amazed to find out how much I had in common with my Middle Eastern counterparts.
  • I now have a different perspective when I hear news of bombings and fighting in the Middle East that do not involve American troops. Now I wonder if the families of the teachers I worked with are safe. Those teachers are my friends. I have become irreversibly connected.

This summer the world became a little smaller for me, and for that I am grateful. I will always think fondly on my trip to the Middle East, but there was something else I learned while I was there: I love old, sprawling, shady oak trees and I miss them terribly when they are not around. I guess the saying is true: you can take a man out of the South, but…


Joe Gaston with ExxonMobil advisor, Khalid Al-Jufairi,  at the 2012 Qatar University ExxonMobil Teachers Academy

Joe Gaston with ExxonMobil advisor, Khalid Al-Jufairi,
at the 2012 Qatar University ExxonMobil Teachers Academy