Let me be honest for a minute: The #CovingtonCatholic confrontation has consumed a TON of my time and attention over the last few weeks — and I have REALLY strong opinions about what it all means for our nation.
But I’ll keep those to myself, saving that energy for the efforts that I’m investing in my own kids and community. My guess is that if you are a part of Radical Nation, you’ve read my bits on equity and race and can probably figure out my thoughts and opinions anyway.
What I think is worth talking about here on the Radical are the digital lessons that the teens in YOUR life can learn from the entire event.
Perhaps most importantly, the teens in your life need to recognize that interactions happening in front of cameras or on devices or in social spaces have four unique characteristics that change EVERYTHING (boyd, 2007).
For better or for worse, digital interactions — as defined by danah boyd, my go to expert for all things tied to teens and social spaces — are:
Persistent — Events and ideas that are recorded on devices/shared to the web are permanent, y’all. They are also accessible to everyone immediately — whether they are present in the moment or not. No one is left out — and actions, both good and bad, hang around forever.
What does that mean for the Covington Catholic kids? Decades from now, people will STILL be dissecting the events that unfolded over a few hours at the end of their high school field trip.
Searchable — When events are recorded and names are attached to content, the thoughts and ideas and actions of any individual become instantly searchable, too. With little effort, anyone can profile peers, accessing information publicly posted over long periods of time.
That means like it or not, the Covington Catholic kids are going to have a TON of uncomfortable questions to answer over the next several years. Darn near everyone they meet is going to Google them — and the first impression those results are going to return are going to be more than a little loaded. That’s a big deal.
Replicable — Content added to digital spaces can also be copied and pasted easily. Ideas, events and opinions shared spontaneously can be taken out of context and spread quickly, carrying long-term unintended consequences.
That’s exactly what happened with content shared during the Covington Catholic confrontation — and it’s still happening today, almost two weeks later. Video clips and pictures and quotes are all being shared over and over again with different interpretations — and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it.
Open to invisible audiences — When interacting in traditional spaces, participants in any event have a good sense of who is watching and can tailor their actions accordingly. Digital audiences, however, are impossible to define. The invisible members of digital audiences — those who inadvertently stumble across public actions and expressions — may interpret ideas differently than they were originally intended.
That’s a part of the argument that the Covington Catholic kids have given in response to the events that took place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: You’ve misunderstood our actions.
But here’s the thing: Actions or ideas that are recorded and shared are always open for misunderstanding by people you didn’t know were watching. That’s one of the risks — and uncomfortable realities — of living in a digital world.
Now remember: I’m not interested in debating whether or not the #CovCath kids were right or wrong. That’s not the purpose of this post.
The purpose of this post is to help you start an important conversation with the teens in your own life because if they are going to successfully navigate today’s digital world, they HAVE to be reminded again and again that mistakes made in front of cameras really can destroy them.
Remind the kids that you care about that pictures and videos of inappropriate or irresponsible behavior are going to become public knowledge. Remind them that those same pictures and videos are going to be shared again and again — without context or explanation. And remind them that everything that they do in front of a camera is going to be persistent and searchable.
My guess is that the teens in your life haven’t thought about any of this.
Go back and watch some of the video shared during the Covington Catholic confrontation. Not only did the Covington kids continue acting in ways that could be considered questionable while surrounded by cameras held by complete strangers, many of them were recording their OWN actions on their OWN devices.
No one stopped in that moment and thought through just what those recordings would become — a persistent, searchable, replicable record of a complete and total disaster.
So what’s the action step for you?
Find a teenager who is important to you and remind them that their private lives begin only after they walk away from their devices. Until then, they need to be on their best behavior.
boyd, d. (2007). Why youth (heart) social network sites: The role of networked publics in teenage social life. In D. Buckingham (Ed.), Youth, identity, and digital media (pp. 119–142). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.