What the Tragedy of Tyler Clementi Can Teach Us About Digital Citizenship

February 16, 2012
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Parents and Families, Students

It probably comes as no surprise to parents, but teenagers rarely think before they act. We counsel and cajole, but impulse control is not a strong suit in adolescence, sometimes to tragic consequences. I awoke one night recently to helicopters outside my Chicago lakefront window, as divers and rescue squads searched for a missing teen in the water. He and his friends, on impulse, had taken a lifeguard’s rowboat out in the middle of the night. Since they had no paddles (they were locked up), they suddenly found themselves in deep water, literally, and abandoned the boat to try and swim for shore. Unfortunately, one teen could not swim.

The risks and dangers are bad enough in real life, but the digital world poses all sorts of new rowboats. 

I thought of this as I read the piece in the Feb. 6 issue of The New Yorker by Ian Parker about the tragic death of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University freshman who jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate allegedly posted a video of him in the embrace of a man. Ravi’s trial begins Feb. 27. While Parker’s story focused implicitly on culpability, it also revealed—shockingly so at times—the callous and “odious” life of teens online—and the crying need for a new form of ethical guidance for this online world our children now inhabit.

The story is familiar to many by now, as it went viral almost immediately. It begins with Ravi, like many teens, checking out his roommate before they even met. Online, he quickly found the traces of Clementi’s searches and posts three years earlier asking about fish tanks, violins, and some basic computer questions. Nerd, he declared to his friend on an IM message. Later that same night, he found posts of Clementi’s on a gay chat site. He immediately posted a link to the site from his Twitter account. As Parker surmises, Ravi’s motives weren’t necessarily homophobic or even that mean-spirited. Instead, “the reputational value of gossip” was carrying the day, gossip made possible by the lingering ghosts of past searches and posts that Clementi had left behind—a new permanency of reputation. 

All this might be chalked up as typical teenage “drama” if not for the spiral of events that would start with a webcam. Clementi, who had told his family just weeks before that he was gay, invited a date over to his room and asked Ravi to vacate for the evening. Ravi, who had programmed the camera on his laptop to turn on remotely, decided it would be fun to spy on Clementi with his date. From his friend Molly Wei’s dorm room, the two turned on the webcam and watched for a couple of minutes before turning it off.

“I felt almost guilty I’d seen it,” Wei said, according to Parker. Ravi tweeted the news. Word quickly spread.

There’s much more to the story, as always, than meets the eye. What we do know, however, is that a few days after Clementi discovered yet another attempted viewing, which Ravi had again advertised, Clementi posted a status update to Facebook: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” His body was found a few days later. What role social media and the webcam played will likely never be known for sure. But Ravi is now awaiting trial on, among other charges, bias intimidation.

There are so many points of ethical breaches in this story, all aided by the immediacy and broadcasting ability of the Internet. Pre-judging a roommate based on his online trail, the ease with which the teen currency of gossip travels, the walling off of face-to-face interaction in favor of online socializing, and of course, the ethical breach of spying on someone and publicizing it—all are compounded by the very nature of the digital world. Couple that with the social culture of teen worlds, and it is a recipe for tragedy.

We know from brain studies that impulse control, planning, and thinking ahead are still developing well beyond age 18. We also know, as reported by a group of scholars studying the juvenile justice system that intellectual abilities stop maturing around age 16, but psychological and social reasoning continues to develop well into early adulthood. While these researchers were studying culpability in crimes, Ravi and Clementi’s story offers strong parallels.

In “Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence,”(pdf) the researchers at the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice, find that “how people reason is only one influence on how they make decisions.” They continue:

In the real world, especially in high-pressure crime situations, judgments are made in the heat of the moment, often in the company of peers. In these situations, adolescents’ other common traits—their short-sightedness, their impulsivity, their susceptibility to peer influence—can quickly undermine their decision-making capacity.

In Ravi’s tweeting and oversharing he was clearly not thinking about the long shelf life of his posts, or the long-term consequences of his webcam spying. The ability to project themselves into the future only develops with time.

Likewise, the poor impulse control of teens makes them both less sensitive to risk and more sensitive to rewards. In this case, the currency of gossip and status may have overridden a more circumspect approach. As one young man said of Ravi’s early tweets, Ravi probably just wanted people to “think of him as this bro.”

And of course, there’s the all-powerful peer pressure. Another study by the same Juvenile Justice Network involving a computer car-driving task showed that the mere presence of friends increased risk-taking in adolescents and college undergraduates, though not adults. With the ubiquity of digital lives, the peers are no longer just in the car; they’re “on” all the time.

Finally, Howard Gardner, a professor of psychology and education at Harvard University, and his colleagues at the GoodPlay project, part of Project Zero, are studying the ethical decisions young people make online.  As we’ve written about before, they find that when interacting online, teens think most often of the immediate, individual effects of their actions and much less often about the larger community.

We here at Common Sense Media are working to provide materials and guidance to educators, parents and teens themselves in grappling with this new landscape of ethical decision-making.

As Jim Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, told USAToday, it’s no use burying our heads in the sand.  "The genie is out of the bottle,” he said. “This is where kids live today, period. ... And as a parent you can't simply shut it out and protect yourself from the brave new world of social media.” The story continues:

"That's why education is so important," he added. "To prevent future Tyler Clementi situations, teach digital citizenship." Teach kids to "self-reflect before you self-reveal;" to respect others' feelings and privacy online; and to remember your digital crumbs never go away.

In many ways, Ravi and Clementi are tragic symbols of the perils of digital life when a sound base and ethical guidance are missing. We should use this as a lesson for all, and begin to open up the conversation about what it means to be a good citizen online and off. 

Photo by Jeannie.