In 2010 CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, made a dire prediction regarding the future of the generation raised with access to social media. He explained that he believes that laws will need to change to make it easier for young people to change their names upon reaching adulthood in order to escape the digital footprint that has been stored on their and their contacts’ social media accounts. He suggested that young people were unable to fathom the consequences of images, comments or associations that would one day become embarrassing or shameful. He stated, “I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time.”
Similarly, adolescent child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg once described teenagers gaining access to smart phones as akin to being given loaded guns. He explained that the capacity to inflict serious and irreversible damage is near instantaneous and is incongruous with the immaturity of the prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain responsible for consequential thinking processes.
During the previous weeks the implications regarding problematic digital footprints have come to the fore. Since the start of the current election campaign 32 candidates from five parties have withdrawn, 10 due to comments or behaviour that was uncovered online.
It is deeply disturbing that electoral candidates have been engaged in anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, racist, homophobic and misogynist activities that have ultimately led to their downfall. It is an important lesson that the populace will not stand for such abhorrent behaviour. With public cynicism of political leadership at all-time lows, demanding personal accountability for behaviour becomes exceedingly important.
In the debate surrounding the rolling political scandals there has been some nuanced commentary that distinguished between offensive comments that were reflective of a candidate’s offensive views and offensive comments or associations which were considered to be “out of character”. This latter category is an area which I see as genuinely problematic.
In an era where our connectedness to social media is ubiquitous and our digital footprint is incredibly expansive, I worry about the implications for young people who in many ways live their lives online. If everything they have ever said or done falls under the scrutiny of the “dirt teams” tasked with destroying an opponent’s image, who among them will be mistake free? I truly wonder if we will be able to find enough meritorious “clean” candidates in future elections.
Another disturbing feature of the current election campaign is the way that it has shone a light on the tone and nature of contemporary online discourse. The often hateful, sarcastic and hysterical commentary on social media and attached to online news articles is reaching a level which often crosses the lines into the territory of bullying and hate speech.
I do not want our children to grow up in the internet “shouting factory”. I am deeply worried about the implications of continual exposure to such environments. How can we prevent this from creeping from the space of virtual environments into real world interactions in daily life?
At King David we are active in trying to educate our students about the dangers and implications of dumb behaviours which can go viral. We are also focused on promoting the integrity and authenticity which comes with consistently aligning our communications and actions with the values we hold true.
Unfortunately, there is no antidote which prevents young people from making mistakes – mistakes are developmentally appropriate and are an inherent part of the learning process. I believe that we must double down on values-laden teaching which focuses on character development. We must teach our students to take care in what they say and post and teach them to have greater respect for the power of instantaneous mass communication.
But most of all we must all be active participants in choosing to bring more empathy back into public discourse. We should be able to hear an opposing view without accepting and normalising that bile and rancour are the appropriate ways to respond.
We cannot and should not turn back the clock on the technological advancements that have so revolutionised communication. But we must all be far more mindful about the language, behaviour and approach we endorse with our attention and our “likes”.