What the Tyler Clementi Case Should Teach Our Students

I was reflecting on what the recent findings of the jury in the Tyler Clementi case meant for those of us, teachers and parents and community, who are responsible for educating students whose young lives are more than ever defined by the use of technology. It is sobering to consider that those college students directly and indirectly involved in what transpired are not that much older than our oldest middle level youngsters.

The “digital natives,” an aging term used to describe the generation of students seemingly born knowing how to use technology, come to school with brains programmed differently than their predecessors. They have an innate comfort level and facility in applying their knowledge of technology virtually in every aspect of their lives. But they also face the same challenges in forming their personal identities and social bonds as the generations before them. Ironically, we see more and more students isolating themselves and spending endless time on electronic games, social networking sites, and other communication platforms. It makes me wonder how we can build self-identity, empathy, social bonds, and social skills if kids inhabit a virtual world instead of the real one.

Technology is here to stay. Technology has transformed the world. Technology is the ramp onto the information superhighway. Technology will allow more and more people to create and accomplish amazing artistic, scientific, and problem-solving feats. Technology, will all its applications and accessibility, is not the problem; the problem is the purposes for which people intend the use of technology. The problem is lack of judgment and sometimes impulse control. We are simultaneously distracted by and attracted to what technology can do so quickly. Our greatest challenge is to teach students that just because they can do something doesn’t mean that they should.

It is easy to see how technology is being used to expose or humiliate others, and middle level students are doing that on a smaller scale already. YouTube and Facebook, among many other websites, are places where anybody can upload images and videos, without the permission or even knowledge of the people in them. When cell phones first came equipped with cameras, as a school we had to devise a policy that kept cell phones out of the school proper because cell phones found their way into locker rooms and bathrooms. Our students taught us that either they did not know the boundaries or were willing to transgress them to get a laugh at someone else’s expense. Is it possible that the threshold for embarrassment has been raised, and that any aspect of our lives, even the most personal, is considered fair game?

College students are legally considered to be adults and held accountable for their actions. Middle level students are still learning and have the opportunity to acquire a moral code of what is right, good, and just. During their high school and college years students often face tests of their values and character. We parents and teachers fervently hope the important messages stick.

There is a greater chance of that happening if we actually have the conversation with our kids. Discussing this case at home with your children is a good starting point. A publication by the website Net Cetera (www.onguardonline.gob) contains helpful advice regarding parenting and the dangers of the internet. Our school’s leadership programs will continue to blend and update important “netiquette” and key character education concepts for our students during what is the most powerful stage of development of their lives. At home, promote a balanced menu of activities, with limits on the amount of time spent on technology, so that kids have conversations with family and friends and engage in recreational, athletic, or reading pursuits. Providing oversight and supervision of student internet interactions is so important right now because if youngsters are allowed to say or do anything they want with technology right now, what would make them think that there are boundaries later on? Like every other aspect of their learning and behavior, our students need structure and guidance to acquire the knowledge of what is appropriate and what is not.

We all need to ask students how they would feel if someone used technology to embarrass, intimidate, or deny them their fundamental human rights. They need to know that they will be held accountable, even criminally, if they use the tools of technology with which they so intimately live to destroy someone’s reputation, dignity or life.

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