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The sad truth: Technology can't protect our kids from being kids

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM
  • Star Tribune
  • October 14, 2010 - 11:02 PM

Of all the agonizing images we're left with in the aftermath of the likely suicide pact of Lakeland teenagers Jacob Campbell and Lisa Grijalva, I can't get one out of my head:

Their apparent decision to shut down their Facebook pages a few days before they died.

We've had way too many reasons to grieve lately about the final, desperate moments of young, promising kids.

The four students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District who took their lives after enduring harassment and bullying based on their perceived GLBT orientation. The Rutgers University freshman who killed himself after his dorm-room sexual encounter was posted on the Internet by his roommate. Now, these two Oak-Land students, barely into their teens, who could not imagine the possibility of a sunnier future ahead if they just held on.

It's too soon to draw conclusions about this latest tragedy, about what would make these kids feel so cornered. But I've become fascinated by how deeply technology plays a role in all of the above, for better and worse.

Mostly, worse.

These are kids whose grandparents were raised on "Candid Camera," arguably the first reality TV show. Debuting in 1948, "Candid Camera" secretly recorded ordinary folks reacting to pranks that would now seem quaint. Pop-open dresser drawers? Hysterical! Now, "Smile! You're on Candid Camera."

If Allan Funt, the TV show's personable host, were still alive, I'd ask him if he ever cringed, ever worried that those on the receiving end might not feel like smiling when caught in what they mistakenly believed was a private moment.

Mostly, I wonder whether Funt saw a link between his 20th century show, and our whirling 24/7 media, and the tragic deaths of late. I sure do.

Consider Tyler Clementi, the gifted violinist of 18, who jumped to his death off George Washington Bridge last month after being secretly taped by his Rutgers roommate, Dharun Ravi, during a sexual encounter with another man. Ravi allegedly posted the tape on the Internet, with the help of a fellow student, Mollie Wei.

As Internet discussions burn up over how to punish the knowing perpetrators, I worry about something else: That these book-smart kids, drenched in a culture of gotcha journalism and reality TV exposing every ugly aspect of human behavior, weren't nearly knowing enough. Savvy about so much, they remain kids, with little inkling about the dark and imperishable gravity of their actions.

"She is trying to stay optimistic," a friend of Wei's was quoted as saying on People.com. "She definitely feels bad and wishes it didn't go the way it did."

This stunning disconnect is familiar territory to Nora Paul, an expert on New Media in the School of Journalism at the University of Minnesota, and the mother of two young adults. "What comes up a lot in our information-strategies class is that young people are 'digital natives' and so savvy," Paul said. "But they are so naive.

"They may know how to flip stuff around, but they don't really understand the repercussions. They can't play out the scenarios. They don't even have enough of a history to say, 'Yeah, I remember what happened to that person.'"

Young people, Paul said, "construct this world that they think they live within. There is no understanding of how permeable those walls are."

Candid Camera, she noted, was "a highly edited show," with any meltdowns by the unsuspecting participants left on the editing room floor. Thanks to the Internet, Paul said, "there is no filter now."

Ominous enough for adults. But for kids? Many now think it's normal to live out their most awkward, vulnerable years on social networks, which magnify their embarrassments and their sometimes impulsive, irretrievable reactions.

I'm hardly implying that there is nothing redeeming about social networks. The best moment of this week comes from YouTube, (tv.gawker.com/5663083), as Fort Worth, Texas, City Councilman Joel Burns, who endured relentless bullying as a gay teen, implores young viewers to "please stick around to make happy memories for yourself." His voice breaks as he refers to a string of recent suicides among gay teens, including Justin Aaberg, of Anoka, who hanged himself this summer. It's a raw and real moment, his heartfelt plea spot on. But it's a tall order for our kids in this new era of technological boundary-pushing, and potential heartache, that Candid Camera's creators likely never imagined.

Jacob and Lisa shut down their Facebook pages and then shut down their lives. Let's not let another child ever feel that desperate.

Our kids want to say, "Enough," but they won't say it unless we say it first.

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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