School Climate & Safety

On AIDS Tweets, Snow Days, and Teaching That Words Have Consequences

By Evie Blad — December 23, 2013 3 min read
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I sometimes shudder at the thought of attending high school class reunions as I remember embarrassing my teen self with immature actions and hurting my peers with sarcastic words that cut a little deep. I didn’t intend to be hurtful at the time, but a big mouth and some giant holes in my conversational filter made it pretty easy to make mistakes. Fortunately, I went to high school in a time before text messaging and Facebook, so my poor choices are contained in the memories of a small selection of classmates.

In smart phones and social networks, today’s teenagers have a quick conduit they can use to transmit their thoughts to the entire world before they have a chance to really consider whether their words are brilliant or just plain stupid. In a culture that values immediacy and in classroom environments that increasingly rely on mobile technology, it can be difficult to teach kids the value of regulating their thoughts and expression. Until some teens see tears in the eyes or a hurt classmate or spy printed copies of their dumb tweets on the desk of a potential employer at a job interviews one day, they just won’t get it.

Enter Justine Sacco, a PR executive who posted a now-infamous tweet before boarding an international flight Friday and was fired before her plane’s wheels touched down. Her well-publicized internet blunder would make the perfect case study for classroom discussions about what’s been called “cyber civility.”

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Sacco, the former senior public relations officer for media company IAC, wrote in a tweet she’s since deleted. The tweet spread rapidly around the internet, and readers, presuming Sacco had no internet access on the plane, started the trending hashtag #hasjustinelanded as they anticipated the consequences.

And the consequences hit hard. After days of international attention, Sacco released an apology. If a PR exec who is trained to mold and channel public perception can make such an offensive public flub, you can bet teenagers with a developing sense of self and others will have a few mistakes of their own. Researchers have found that social networking can be as addictive as cigarettes, and that we are often less inhibited when we express ourselves online than we are sharing our thoughts face-to-face. Studies have found that talking about about oneself online releases all kinds of happy chemicals, the USCience Review reported:

A study conducted by researchers at Harvard University tested the theory that people more highly value their own experiences over those of others, and that self-disclosure, or the act of talking about oneself, positively triggers dopamine reward pathways ... The researchers determined whether subjects would prefer reporting their own experiences to receiving a small monetary reward. When participants were asked to choose between expressing their own opinions, judging the opinions of others, or answering factual questions, with each option having an equal monetary reward, participants preferred self-disclosure over opinions of others 69 percent of the time and over factual questions 66 percent of the time. When the three options were associated with differing monetary awards, participants would choose self-disclosure over the other two options even when self-disclosure resulted in a smaller payoff, resulting in an average loss of 17 percent in monetary rewards."

We see these ideas at work when teens flood the internet with One Direction tweets during a pop music awards ceremony, share pictures of yucky school lunches, or say hurtful and emotionally damaging things about their peers online.

My colleague Lesli Maxwell recently wrote a cute blog post about some creative kids close to Education Week‘s headquarters who used Twitter to campaign directly to their superintendent for a snow day in Montgomery County, Md. But, along with funny and goofy tweets, Superintendent Joshua Starr received “offensive and disturbing” online messages that day, he said in an open letter to parents:

I don't have all the answers in my home or in our schools. But I know it takes deliberate and tough conversations within families and communities to help kids understand how to use technology and social media appropriately. I'm sure that most of the students who posted inappropriate comments to me on Twitter were doing so without thinking. In fact, we know that the adolescent brain isn't equipped to think long term and doesn't calculate risk/reward ratios in the same way that adults do. I'd like to think that they wouldn't post such things if they understood the consequences of their actions or if they knew that I'm legally responsible for reporting threats to the police and to their parents. I'd like to think they wouldn't post such things, especially if they understood that these posts are permanent and can follow them and impact college acceptances, job opportunities, and future relationships. I'm writing this letter to start a conversation about how we can support our children in using technology in a way that is healthy, productive, and positive."

Recognizing the power of students’ online speech to affect their own reputations and hurt their peers, states around the country have passed cyber bullying legislation. In some cases, new laws have drawn criticism from civil rights activists, who are concerned that requiring schools to punish students for online speech, even if that speech comes in the form of a web posting made outside of school, infringes on free-speech rights.

But even those who disagree about discipline for online speech recognize the need to teach students empathy and responsibility when they broadcast their thoughts. Teachers need some powerful examples that will cause students to stop long enough mid dopamine rush to consider how their words will affect themselves and others.

Sacco’s story is a great starting point for such a conversation.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.