Modern technology was supposed to make us smarter.
So much for that.
"No matter how smart you are in real life, many people are stupid online," said Parry Aftab, a privacy lawyer and cyber-safety expert in New Jersey, where recent allegations about sexually oriented calls and texts from Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre have highlighted the perils of electronic communication. "Technology just keeps things forever, and you don't really know where it is."
Boorish and harassing behaviors have been with us since the caveman era. But the 21st century's instant communication -- texting, sexting, tweeting, e-mailing -- creates infinite opportunities for impulsive actions and everlasting consequences.
"This kind of human behavior is timeless and has not changed," said David Alter, a Minnetonka clinical psychologist. "[But] technology can disseminate those mistakes and misjudgments internationally in a matter of minutes."
Such missives also have brought a virtual end to the "he said, she said" era, and not just among the Tiger Woodses of the world. Angry or exculpatory e-mails and texts are a rapidly rising factor in marriage breakups, said St. Louis Park-based divorce lawyer Pamela Green.
As University of Minnesota psychology Prof. William Doherty noted, "People who become your exes save that stuff."
But knowing the shelf life of a text message doesn't prevent risqué or rash behavior, especially in moments of heightened emotions.
"We're all prone to taking risks when we're angry, when we're sexually attracted to somebody, when we're financially strapped," Doherty said. "You take those major stressors, and we're all prone to have terrible lapses in judgment."
Unfortunately, forethought doesn't always factor into such behavior.
"Just as we say to adolescents, 'What were you thinking?' -- the same applies here," said Mindy Mitnick, a licensed psychologist at the Uptown Mental Health Clinic in Minneapolis. "They weren't thinking, or sometimes they're thinking that no one will find out. Or it might be that in that moment, they don't care. And there are people who don't understand that anyone could view it in a different way from them, who are shocked that someone wouldn't like it."
Celebrities and other high-status individuals are especially prone to that. And experts say it's learned behavior.
"Elite athletes have been treated as such that any desire they have, it should be gratified, whether it's grades for work they didn't do in class, or groupies," said Loren Terveen, a social-media expert at the University of Minnesota. "The thing we should remember is, when we see elite athletes' behavior as asocial and amoral, and think, 'How could they do this?' Well, they've been getting away with it all their lives."
Doherty said the same holds true for everyone from Hollywood producers (think "casting couch") to "clergy, celebrities and men who make a lot of money and have positions of power and status." He called it "an occupational hazard, like black lung disease as a high risk for coal miners."
Clicking before thinking
For most of the past two centuries, communication moved fairly slowly, which allowed time to consider an angry letter, for example. Over the past two decades, though, immediate communication has created more opportunities for what Doherty calls "impulsive, risky behaviors."
"It's easy to pick up the cell phone and rip off a text message, and there it is -- maybe too easy," Terveen said.
"When Brett Favre and the older generations started using telephones, it was a land-line, he'd leave a message on an answering machine, and it was going to go away. It was very much a private thing. Of course, now we know that if it's digital, it can be forwarded. It doesn't go away."
But by now, experts agree, all generations should understand that and shouldn't blame boneheaded dispatches on naïveté.
"Young people know their ways around technology better, but they're not better at assessing risk," Doherty said. "Old people are still prone to send the flaming e-mail to a family member or co-worker. They tend not to send pictures of their naked body but do other stupid things."
Aftab, the privacy lawyer, is "always getting adults out of trouble for sending pictures to someone they were seeing online, or pulling down their pants and sending a 'moon' picture," she said. "It's just not as funny when they're not drunk the next day. ... Older people should know better. When we're given tools like cars and cell phones, at some point, we're expected to use them responsibly."
But sexting -- sending sexually charged texts and photos via cell phone -- is not just a youthful indiscretion, and never has been. Sexting by older people is not becoming more common, Aftab said; it's simply becoming more known.
So when it comes to instant communication, older is not wiser.
"Although people tell their children not to do this because they can get caught," Mitnick said, "the grownups themselves don't seem to have gotten that same message."
Added Aftab: "We just need to recognize that very little of what we do is private, unless you're offline, your roommate doesn't have their laptop aimed at you, and you're not talking to anyone. My mother always used to tell me: 'Don't go outside without your underwear on. You might get hit by a car, and then everyone will see.' Well, I think it's time we started taking that attitude with things we do online."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643 Amelia Rayno • 612-673-4115