Up next in our ongoing series on think of the children and how the internet is ruining everything it touches is the now ubiquitous phenomenon of viral videos. This is a tough one for me to tackle because I’m open to very fair charges of hypocrisy on the subject. I happen to love funny, awkward or sometimes horrible YouTube videos which frequently find us laughing at the embarrassment or misfortune of others. (I regularly watch Ridiculousness on MTV if that’s any indication for you.) But particularly when it comes to children, having a video of them “go viral” on the web can wind up having a significant impact on their lives. That’s the premise of an excellent op-ed from Louie Villalobos at USA Today this week.
What you won’t see on Google or any other Internet profile or page, though, are my childhood mistakes.
That means those mistakes won’t haunt me for the foreseeable future. It means I won’t lose job opportunities or potential scholarships. I won’t have the world come down on me to collectively point a judgmental finger.
I won’t be labeled a racist or dismissed as stupid by the court of social media justice. Now, some of that might still happen to me. But it will be as an adult and because I’m, well, me now.
Too bad our kids don’t have that same luxury. Every day we have kids trending across social media for doing the stupidest things in the world. They do and post racist things. They offend and they poorly represent themselves and their families.
Louie goes on to point out that teenagers frequently don’t grasp how much damage can be done to them when an awful video becomes part of their “permanent record” on the web with their name attached to it. The attraction of all the instant attention they can receive from a massively viewed video can overcome whatever judgement they might have. The web is a place for punishment, not just enlightenment, and the hordes are thirsty for blood, turning someone into a freak show for a few days and then moving on. But the video remains, and when people search on that person in the future it all comes back around again. Such a result can affect their chances of getting into college, landing a job, or even their future relationships with a prospective spouse.
So what to do? As usual, it all comes down to parenting. When an adult does something incredibly stupid, offensive or evil and allows it to wind up on the web, well… personal responsibility is part of being an adult. Remember Lindsey Stone… the woman who offended the nation with sacrilegious acts at Arlington cemetery? Her life was ruined, but let’s face it… she brought that on herself. Kids are another matter. Only their parents can give them a fighting chance to avoid such mistakes. Sadly, too many parents either don’t know or don’t care enough to get involved when it matters.
So does this mean we should just cut kids off from the internet unless they are supervised? It’s a lovely idea, but hard to pull off in many cases. Much like smoking and drinking, all you can really do is insist on some long heart to heart conversations with plenty of real world examples of how wrong things can go before your child is given their first phone or laptop. That still won’t stop them all because young people can be incredibly stupid. (If we’d had the internet when I was in high school I’d probably be working as a side show freak in a circus by now.) But you can at least try to stay involved and give them the best chance possible at avoiding that sort of disaster.