Youth Leaguers Beware: Social Media Can Ruin Your Life
By Doug Abrams
Are you a high schooler who wants to attend a good college, perhaps on an academic or athletic scholarship? Are you a collegian who wants to remain in good standing? Want to attend graduate school afterwards? Want to land a good job before or after college? Want to earn a military commission? Want to hold a professional license that requires proof of good character? When your hair turns gray years from now, will you want to encourage your own children and grandchildren to follow your life’s example?
This column concerns one way to help assure that these and other worthwhile lifelong goals remain difficult, and perhaps impossible, to achieve – use social media to harass classmates or others. By hiding behind the presumed anonymity of the keyboard, cyberbullies can ruin their own reputations permanently.
Cyber anonymity is not always what it seems. Because bullies crave an audience, their own boasting might give themselves away; peers will know, and they may not forget, even years later. Or a bully might inadvertently send an electronic message to unintended recipients, who forward them and perhaps figure out the bully’s identity.
The bully’s name might land in the newspaper if the incident happens to produce local notoriety, a lawsuit, a criminal or civil complaint or inquiry, or disputed school discipline. Newspapers land on the Internet, where anyone can quickly search the bully’s name at any time in the future. “Anyone” includes several routine searchers – colleges and universities weighing admissions applications, prospective employers, government agencies, and even friends and family members years later.
“Kids are KILLING THEMSELVES Over Cyberbullying”
In just the last month, headlines reported two Twitter incidents that should warn about the dangers of treating technology as a toy, without respect for its unprecedented capacity to shame users. The first incident involved former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, whose 17-year-old daughter was accepted at Rhode Island’s Salve Regina University, where she will play softball. Immediately after Schilling tweeted his congratulations in late February, a few male trolls miles away tweeted vulgar sexual slurs directed at her. Some of the slurs seemed to border on, or even cross the line into, threats of sexual violence perhaps cognizable by criminal or civil authorities.
Schilling did not take the matter lightly. “Kids are KILLING THEMSELVES over cyber bullying,” he correctly responded on his blog. “If you hate me because of my political stance that’s ok. If you hate me because you love the Yanks, that’s cool. Those differences are the very fabric of this country. We are ALLOWED to be, think, and act different. Men and women have died for over 239 years so you and I could debate and argue politics, religion, evolution, baseball, sports, whatever, without death as a potential argument finisher.”
After Schilling determined the identities of his daughter’s trolls, his blog named the men, who paid the consequences. At least one lost his job, and others — collegiate student-athletes — face discipline from their schools, including dismissal from their teams.
“Why Not Give Him a Second Chance?”
The second recent Twitter incident targeted Mo’ne Davis, who won national attention last summer as the first girl to pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series. When the Disney Channel announced that it would do a film of her achievements, a Bloomsburg (Pa.) University first baseman sent this tweet: “Disney is making a movie about Mo’Ne Davis? WHAT A JOKE. That slut got rocked by Nevada.”
Publicly calling a 13-year-old girl a “slut” is serious business. The University has dismissed the first baseman from the team, but Davis sent the University an email asking for his reinstatement because “everyone makes mistakes” and “[w]hy not give him a second chance?”
The Changed Dynamic
What lessons do the Schilling and Davis episodes hold for parents, coaches, and youth league and high schools players? The trolls happened to be older than youth league age, but the lessons do not depend on age.
On “The Sports Edge,” Rick Wolff has long urged parents and coaches to teach players about cyber self-discipline in the Internet age. In his most recent Sunday morning show and blog posting, he correctly reiterates that parents need to talk with their players at home, and that coaches need to talk with players and parents at preseason meetings, with follow-up throughout the season as pressures mount.
Times have changed. Outbreaks of spoken vulgarity have marked sports for decades, and local youth sports rivalries have never been immune from the verbal give-and-take. In the old days, emotions might simmer for a while, but memories and bad feelings usually faded because the words left no permanent written evidence and listeners numbered only a few. By creating a potentially permanent forum for distant communication that can reach an unlimited audience of hundreds or thousands, social media has changed the dynamic.
On Sunday morning’s show, Rick plausibly suggested that the Bloomsburg University first baseman might have thought he was simply being flip, without appreciating the slur’s potential effect on himself or his target. Parents and coaches need to emphasize, however, that speaking and writing remain distinct modes of communication, even when the two modes use the same words.
Written communication arrives without the tone of voice, facial expression, body language, and contemporaneous opportunity for explanation that can soothe face-to-face interaction. Writing appears cold on the page, and its meaning depends not necessarily on what the writer intends or implies, but on what readers infer. No decent reader could have reacted to the first baseman’s vulgar tweet with anything but disgust.
“Before You Do It”
Americans are learning the hard way that common decency does not restrain some social media users from wallowing in vulgarity, sexual innuendo, and other vicious cyberbullying. Nor does empathy for the physical and emotional trauma that cyberbullying can inflict on its targets.
Perhaps self-interest might do the trick. As responsible adults teach adolescents empathy, they also need to teach that when the keyboard becomes a weapon, it can injure the user as much as, or sometimes even more than, it injures the target.
Injury to users can be permanent because society does not always give miscreants second chances. For the rest of their years, the Schilling and Davis tweeters may have a difficult time explaining to educational institutions, prospective employers, government agencies, and others why they publicly leveled indecent sexual slurs at teenage girls, including threats of sexual violence at one.
The 13-year-old Davis was actually much more perceptive than the Bloomsburg University first baseman, who is presumably an adult. In her email asking the University to forgive him, she observed that “sometimes you got to think about what you’re doing before you do it.”
Only afterwards did the Bloomsburg first baseman recognize what he had done. Philly.com reported the apology he tweeted the next day. “[O]ne stupid tweet,” he wrote, “can ruin someone’s life.”