The tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers student who died after a fellow student allegedly live streamed video of Tyler having sex with another man, is, unfortunately, a side effect of growing up in the digital age. Tyler's generation came of age with the Internet and tools to document, record and broadcast their lives -- and the lives of their friends. This includes everything from benign photos of friends or banal status updates to compromising or inappropriate images and videos that have lead to expulsions, firings and now, suicides.
When sex tapes, photos or scandals happen to celebrities like Paris Hilton or Disney star Vanessa Hudgens or politicians like former New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, there are teams of publicists who manage the damage control and ensure that what begins as a scandal becomes a positive -- whether that means any publicity is good publicity or transforming the "victim" into a spokesperson on the issue or just helping them reinvent themselves. Of course most young people are not surrounded by professionals with a vested interest in helping them survive online scandals.
The feelings that surface for a young person when explicit photos or video is posted online or sexted can be dire -- it feels like the end of the world. And for a gay person who may not have come out to friends or family, the rush of emotions can be too much to handle, especially without immediate support.
Even with the push towards teaching digital ethics (of which I am a huge proponent), the reality is this can still happen to you. Someone can photograph or record you without your knowledge and post it online where it can spread like wildfire. The bigger question for parents, educators, counselors and young people themselves is how to manage through this type of crisis -- how to find perspective in midst of feelings of shock, embarrassment and hopelessness. How to seek out people you trust and have them remind you of your value no matter what happens as a result of being "outed" or having explicit or embarrassing images posted online.
One of our big themes at Inspire USA, the organization behind ReachOut.com is resilience and a belief that young people have the strength to overcome tough times. In addition to the important focus this tragedy has put on preventing GLBT bullying, I hope that it also shines a light on the importance of developing resilience in young people growing up "totally wired" in a world where what feels private can be easily made public -- ready or not.
If you or someone you know has survived (and thrived) after being bullied online or having photos or video "sexted," we would love to publish your story on ReachOut.com. Please go to ReachOut.com and upload your story of resilience today.
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