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.