Cries of outrage and sadness echoed across the country in the wake of the suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after the surreptitious webcast of his private encounter with another man. The incident has provoked another national discussion of cyber bullying. CNN's special on the subject is scheduled to air this week.
Meanwhile, students at Duke University are enduring a scandal of their own over a major breach of privacy on the internet. Senior Karen Owens wrote a mock thesis on her sexual escapades with more than a dozen Duke athletes. Owens sent her "thesis" to a couple friends via email. Although Owens claims that she never intended anyone else to see the document, it took on a life of its own in the internet, where millions of people have since viewed it. Owens named each of her "subjects" in her "thesis," so their families and friends now have access to Owens' rendering of the sexual strengths, inadequacies, and eccentricities of her former lovers.
While Tyler Clementi tragically chose he could not live with the consequences of his public humiliation, Owens and the victims of her indiscretion will forever live in the digital shadow of her tell-all. Google searches on their names will invariably generate links to various sites where the presentation, along with pictures of all of her conquests, have been posted in perpetuity. As horrified as she likely was to see her "thesis" receive so much attention, imagine what she will think in 10 or 20 years, well aware that everyone she meets can uncover the sexual conquests of her youth with a simple search. Her future husband will at some point read of her exploits, as will her children and their friends.
So, now the media is grabbing a hold of the cyber bullying story and running with it. And we should all be glad this story is being written. But the issue is much bigger than that... and much more complicated. Was Karen Owens trying to bully people when she wrote about the men she bedded? Were Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei (the students who live-streamed Tyler Clementi's in dorm sexual encounter) having fun or trying to hurt Tyler? Did they have any idea of the potential consequences of their actions? No one knows for sure but I would guess none of them thought through the ramifications of their actions.
Here is the problem. People today have an incredible power to post and share information with the entire world. The younger you are, the better you understand how to do it because you have grown up learning how to use the technology. But who is talking about the responsibility that comes with this power? Who is teaching our kids what is appropriate and what is not? Who is showing them how to protect themselves from the "one strike and you're out" cyber world? Sadly, the answer currently is no one.
Let's be honest, the internet offers no second chances. It does not forgive, and it never forgets. In the words of NYTimes Magazine essayist Jeffrey Rosen, the internet has brought about "The End of Forgetting." (http://nyti.ms/bBzwdC). In almost every other aspect of society, parents would have the ability to learn from their own experiences and pass on that wisdom to their children. None of us grew up with only permanent markers and no pencils. Think about that for a minute. Imagine if 20 years ago there were no cars. Now imagine a kid turning 16 and being given a Porsche with no lessons, no speed limit, and told to drive it however they saw fit, but use your best judgment. CRASH!
Did I do some really foolish things when I was in college? Absolutely. Take a moment to reflect on your craziest youthful indiscretions. Now imagine what could have been tweeted, posted, and forwarded about your youth. Imagine your son or daughter googling your name decades after the fact and seeing all your secrets revealed. Luckily, the many mistakes I made as a young man have faded into the recesses of memory, relived only at the occasional college reunion. Today, with children growing up on MySpace and Facebook, that luxury no longer exists.
Given another chance, Dharun and Molly would surely never again make the mistake of webcasting Tyler's private moments. Likewise, Karen Owens would never again post a demeaning exposé of her lovers and risk it being posted for millions to read. But this is the internet age, and there are no second chances.
Are other young adults likely to learn from these cautionary tales and avoid making fateful mistakes of their own? I don't know; we can only hope. I think that we, as adults, have a responsibility to the less experienced members of society. If we don't begin a complicated and difficult conversation about social responsibility and digital privacy, if we don't begin to teach our children about the power and unforgiving nature of the internet, we will have many more tragic stories for the media to report.
Jeffrey Evans is the CEO of TigerText, a text messaging service that offers and promotes increased privacy standards in communication.