Social Media: What are our rights and what are our responsibilities?

We live in an interesting era. Anyone with a computer, or even a phone for that matter, can have a platform to say anything to anyone. There are so many ways that this thing we call social media is positive. It is an excellent way to keep in touch with people. It’s great for sharing information. News of issues like missing pets and amber alerts can get around so quickly. But there is a flip side. What about when something bad happens? What are our rights and what are our responsibilities.

Imagine for a minute, if you will, being a fourteen year old middle school girl. I don’t know about you, but I think middle school can be quite the social jungle. I work with kids this age all the time who are struggling with their identity. Dealing with issues like anxiety and depression, trying to negotiate the social aspect of this age, and attempting the manage the pressures of school, friends, sports, etc. it can be a grueling time in a person’s life.

Now I would ask you to imagine that this fourteen year old girl has just had her world rocked by some major life tragedy within her family. Something so horrible and upsetting that she has been crying herself to sleep every night. Her parents are fighting non-stop and they are at risk of losing everything. The pressure feels unmanageable to her and in her fourteen year old mind, things will never get better. Then she goes to school and the kids there are whispering behind her back, some are pointing at her as she walks by, and some are even coming up to her saying terrible and shaming things. And she realizes that her worst nightmare has come true. That every person at her school knows her family’s shameful secret. That she is now a social outcast! She wants to lean on her friends but finds that most of them have turned their backs on her too. Her anxiety level goes through the roof. She has no escape from this pain. Home is terrible and now school is too. She feels completely alone.

I don’t know about you, but as an adult, I would want my children to be her friend, to go up to her and put their arm around her, to tell her it will be alright, that this is temporary and this pain will end in time. I would want her to have comfort and support. I would want her to feel like her community is in her corner. I would want her neighbors to offer to listen and her team mates to tell her they’re there for her. In this time in her life, she needs it more than ever. In fact, it could mean the difference between life and death, for all of this pressure has made her begin to think that it would be better if she just were not here anymore.

If you’re imagining this, I bet you are feeling bad for this girl. I bet you are hoping someone comes along to comfort her. I bet you’re thinking if you were her neighbor you would reach out, if your kid was her friend you’d tell them to be there for her.

But now let’s imagine that the issue this girl is having, this tragedy, is something shameful that a family member did. Let’s say her father has been arrested for allegations of molesting a child, or her mother for driving drunk driving that seriously injured a family with young children, or maybe her older brother was driving like an irresponsible teen and killed himself and his passenger. What shame that girl would feel. What worry and sadness. How embarrassed would she be, the fourteen year old who is already embarrassed by nearly everything. But now this child has a whole other layer of pain and shame she has to manage, that it feels like her entire community has turned against her. The worst things are being written about her family. People are saying that the mom she has always loved, the one who has taken her to all her soccer games and kissed all her booboos, should have died in that wreck and is a terrible person. People are saying her dad, who has helped her with her homework and tucked her in at night, is an evil man. Her brother, who once stuck up for her against a bully, was a terrible person who should have known better and ruined so many lives. It’s almost more than she can bare, to read those things now when her life is shattered to a million pieces.

When something tragic and avoidable happens, we as a community all feel outrage. This is completely understandable. It’s been that way always. In times past, we might have discuss it with our neighbor over the fence, “that man should rot in jail.” We may talk to another parent about it at football practice, “I’ve always known that woman drinks too much.” We may text our best friend, “that boy was being stupid driving like that; I bet he was high.” But now, we turn to our phones and our computers. We don’t just post it on our personal wall for our few hundred friends to see, we put our opinions and thoughts, our shock and outrage, on public sites for thousands to read about, including that fourteen year old girl.

So let’s stop and think for a moment. Is this the version of ourselves we want the whole world to see, the version that is spiteful and (understandably) angry? Is this what we want to model for our children? How do we expect them to go to school and not whisper and point, not call her a name, when we are essentially publicly shaming her on social media? I think we must remember that we are not talking to our neighbor, our fellow sports parent, or our best friend when we are typing on a public site, we are talking to everyone, including that innocent child who’s world has just fallen apart. I urge each of you, before those fingers touch that keyboard, to stop and think. If this is not something you would knock on that girl’s door and say to her tear-streaked face, it may not be something to write in a public forum.

Do we have a RIGHT to post these things? I suppose the answer is “yes”. But what are our RESPONSIBILITIES?

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