A further reminder that individual privacy is hard to maintain in the Web 2.0 era came two weeks ago when a Rutgers University freshman committed suicide after seeing his sexual activity broadcast over the Web. It had been secretly recorded over a Webcam in his bedroom Sept. 19.
Tyler Clementi, 18, jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge shortly afterwards. Two Rutgers students – one of whom was Clementi’s roommate — stand accused of secretly webcasting the sexual encounter involving Clementi and another man who has not been identified.
It’s the latest tragic episode in what many are calling cyber-voyeurism.
In an ironic twist, Clementi leaped to his death apparently over this webcast and yet used the same Internet to announce his intention, according to ABC News. His message, posted to his Facebook page Sept. 22 at 8:42 p.m. read simply, “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
The attorney for one of the two students charged with invasion of privacy said in a statement Tuesday that his client, “committed no crime,” and described her as a “wonderful, caring and talented young woman with a bright future.”
In New Jersey, it is a fourth-degree crime to collect images showing sexual content or nudity without the subject’s consent, and it is a third-degree crime to transmit the relevant content.
Although invasion of privacy laws exist in every state, the application of those laws vary from state to state. And, unless those cases lead to wrongful death charges or civil claims, the punishment can be fairly light, especially in cases where suicides result from the humiliation caused by the unwanted exposure.
One university English professor, Brian McNely, has noted about this Internet overkill, “You have the capacity to yell ‘fire’ in a movie theatre, but there would be consequences of some legal ramification. Things that students say online publicly like Twitter and Facebook, they should assume those things are going to stay forever. People have to be very wary about what they post.”
This is the fourth time the focus of this blog has been on either self-disclosed “sexting” or on individuals suffering the consequence of others posting sexual messages or other revealing information about their friends. What some people have seen as a passing fad is apparently more than that. What some people feared to be a damaging application of the social media has proven to be just that.
The fact that nearly all of the suicides that have occurred so far involve teenage victims make the problem even more egregious.
The medium is the massage
The late Marshall McLuhan often spoke of how each media form “massages” us differently and has different effects on it. For example, watching a traumatic event like 9/11 on live television produces a different effect on us than reading about it the next morning in the newspaper.
The same is true with the Web and the social media found on them. We can feel a real invasion of privacy when unwanted messages, photos, or videos are posted about us, and rightly so. And that sense of embarrassment – which reached the point of humiliation with Tyler Clementi – can lead to tragic consequences.
A couple years ago, an honor student at a conservative private college in Kentucky decided to do what a growing number of students are doing these days: use his Facebook account to come out of the closet and tell others he is gay.
For his openness, he was expelled from this college which had a policy of not accepting gay students.
At another university, a sophomore posted pictures of himself getting plastered at a weekend party. That would have been okay had it not been for the fact he was under the legal drinking age in Ohio and the school did not allow students to hold leadership positions on campus if they were drinking illegally.
He never became editor.
These are just two of many examples of young people who have chosen to live their lives out loud. Throwing caution to the wind, the typical 20-something who has grown up in the age of chatrooms and interactive media has embraced social media sites like Facebook to disclose just about everything they think is either shocking, amusing, or titillating about himself or herself.
And this phenomenon starts early, as the tragic cases of teen suicide over the practice of “sexting” have shown the past couple of years.
I began discovering this lack of concern about privacy a few years ago and have been asking my own college students about it ever since. Originally I asked it in the context of a class I teach on communication ethics. We deal with a section on individual privacy vs. government surveillance, which is a topic that I find somewhat scary because I’ve always wondered how widespread the misuse of government surveillance might be on Americans.
Too many blank stares
Citing some examples of such abuse, I ask my students if they aren’t a bit concerned, too. In return, I usually get silence and some blank stares. So I’m thinking that these are the same students who are willingly giving up their own privacy by self-disclosing about themselves to virtual strangers online, so why should they feel concerned about someone else invading their privacy? And apparently that is true. They aren’t.
So then I ask them if they aren’t concerned about disclosing too much information about themselves in Facebook. Again, a lot of blank stares and silence. I infer from this reaction that either they haven’t ever thought about this as a problem, or they think I’m out of a prehistoric generation that keeps too many secrets about themselves.
A third possibility is that they trust the privacy filters on Facebook as much as they seem to trust faceless government officials who controls the means to surveillance.
Who’s to blame
When I tell them about what happened to the Kentucky student or the kid at the Ohio university, they seem shocked. They usually get on the case of the administrations at these two schools, debating their policies they think got the students into trouble. I remind them, however, it was the students, who knew these policies, who got themselves into trouble by living their lives out loud.
Because of these encounters with my own students, I was surprised to see a story in the New York Times recently that revealed the results of a survey done by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley showing this thinking may be shifting among young people.
The study, funded by the Pew Internet Project, found that over half of these young adults surveyed are now more worried about their own privacy they were in 2005. That figures is about equal of the number of people their parents’ age or older who are concerned about their privacy.
Just as surprising is people in their 20s are taking more control over their “digital reputations” than are their older counterparts. They delete threatening posts and are starting to limit information about themselves. This finding could, however, be the result of younger people knowing how to engage those digital filters more than older adults who spend less time with the social media.
Possibly because many Facebook users are finding the built-in filters aren’t foolproof, many young people are all of a sudden worried about those party pix or those tell-all announcements of their sexual orientation.
Young people are also hearing, from older people like me, about how college administrators and employers are tracking Facebook and MySpace to find out more information about individuals applying for leadership posts in college or jobs beyond graduation. So that’s starting to give them pause.
Learning to distrust filters
The Times article, written by Laura M. Holson, talks about Sam Jackson, a junior at Yale who began a blog when he was 15 and who has already interned at Google. Jackson said he had learned not to trust any social network to keep his information private.
“If I go back and look, there are things four years ago I would not say today,” he told the Times. “I am much more self-censoring. I’ll try to be honest and forthright, but I am conscious now who I am talking to.”
Says Holson, “He has learned to live out loud mostly by trial and error and has come up with his own theory: concentric layers of sharing. His Facebook account, which he has had since 2005, is strictly personal. “
“I don’t want people to know what my movie rentals are,” Jackson said. “If I am sharing something, I want to know what’s being shared with others.”
The use of new communication technology that seems to puzzle so many people is the use of cell phones for texting. At the same time it is puzzling some, however, it has become an integral part of daily life for many others.
How widespread is it? Statistics show that nearly 70 percent of all Americans send at least one text a day. Nearly every teen who has a cell phone sends several texts a day.
Like all applications of the new media, texting is only as good or as bad as who is texting, why, and — especially for this application — when.
In many cases, when time is at a premium, people prefer to text short bursts than phone in a message. And texting is obviously a welcome phone format for voice-impaired users.
Other times, though, texting is not so great.
For example, just this week regulators have determined a text message probably cost 25 people their lives in a tragic accident in California.
That happened on Sept. 12, 2008, when a Los Angeles Metrolink commuter train carrying 350 people collided head-on with a Union Pacific Freight train at rush hour in the L.A. suburb of Chatsworth. Both trains were traveling aboout 40 mph on impact, twenty-five people were killed and more than 100 were injured.
An official 16-month probe of the cause of the accident pointed to the commuter train engineer’s text-messaging as the primary cause, as noted by the Associated Press this week. That engineer was one of those killed in the crash.
“Tragically, an instant message turned an ordinary commute into a catastrophe,” the AP was told by Deborah Hersman, chairperson of the National Transportation Safety Board.
In short, according to the NTSB, the commuter train engineer was texting and missed a red signal, sending his train into the nose of the freight train.
As a result of the accident, regulators have banned cell phone use by in-service train engineers.
A more widespread misuse of texting, though, occurs among motorists who text while they drive. Statistics show as many as 46 percent of those drivers who text are teenagers, who of course are inexperienced drivers in the first place. Not surprisingly, many accidents have resulted from this hazardous multi-tasking.
From Texting to Sexting
Another tragic misuse of texting is one many parents fear as much, if not more.
It is the practice known as “sexting” when teens — and even pre-teens — text sexually explicit messages and photos or their nude or partially nude bodies to a boyfriend or girlfriend, only to have those photos redistributed to a much wider array of teens. Sometimes it’s done by the posting of those embarrasing photos on sites such as Facebook.
The humiliation resulting from these redistributions has caused at least two young girls to commit suicide over the past 12 months. Last September, 13-year-old Hope Witsell of the Cincinnatti area hanged herself in her bedroom after a topless photo she sent to a boy wound up getting much wider circulation at her school and another high school.
Last March, 18-year-old Jesse Logan of Hillsborough, Fla., killed herself when a nearly identical incident occurred. The only difference was that the boy who recirculated her photo was her ex-boyfriend, while Witsell sent her photo to a boy to get him interested in her. A third party, using the boy’s phone, saw the photo and sent it on to others.
In both cases, bullying and biting sarcasm from others at school proved too much for each girl, and they chose to end their lives rather than continue to bear the brunt of others’ scorn.
Some Teens Arrested
Something some teens don’t realize is that sexting is a felony in several states. Last week, three teenage girls and three teenage boys — all between the ages of 14-17, were charged in Pennsylvania with child pornography for the sending and receipt of sexual messages and photos. Similar charges are pending for other teens in Massachusetts and Wisconsin.
And the practice is not confined to just a few teens, either. The National Campaign to Support Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has reported that 20 percent of all teens have admitted to engaging in sexting. Other estimates push that to as high as 39 percent.
Next Up: A Lighter Look
Next time we’ll take a lighter look at how college students view texting , why they spend so much time with it, and at the new provocative meaning of that term has among so many young people.