Steubenville Trial: Teaching Today’s Youth to Be Responsible Social Media Users
As the Steubenville Trial taking place less than two hours from my home winds up today or tomorrow, I’m in Hawai’i preparing for my upcoming speech. At this conference, held by the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma, I’ll talk about the factors that led me to become a rape victim—-and the survival skills I learned along the way.
Such skills are something the unnamed Steubenville rape victim must continue to learn, as she tries to get through each day of the rest of her life. Especially today and the next few days, as Judge Thomas Lipps issues his ruling in the Jefferson County Juvenile Court case.
What makes this rape case different from many others is the use of cell phones and social media. If you haven’t heard by now—and I’m not sure how you could have missed it—the two teen football heroes took pictures of the girl as they digitally raped her. So did student onlookers. Then they posted them to the Web, so the world could watch what these two confused young men have apparently come to view as a group sport.
And apparently not a single student who snapped photos and then forwarded them to other friends or posted them on social media sites had enough moral fortitude to pause before hitting the send button. Or maybe just to stop and think: “Hey, wait a minute. This isn’t a game. It’s a crime. I should send this photo to the police, so they can come and rescue this poor girl.” (Because it’s obvious none of the partiers in that crowd tried to rescue her.) Or if the students did think that, they sure didn’t act on it.
It would seem they were more worried about peer pressure and how such a responsible action might affect their own popularity, than trying to be good citizens.
I first heard about sexting in 2007, while working at the Cumberland Times-News in Maryland. One day at the McDonald’s in Frostburg I was having coffee with a young mother who was distraught because her daughter, an inexperienced girl in her early teens, had received a pornographic text message. It showed a fellow male student’s genitals. That was my introduction to sexting, and I didn’t even know it. I did know it was a story—I just didn’t know how big a story it would have been, had this woman not been a personal friend. A year later, I learned more about this growing problem when I went to a press conference about teen dating abuse at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The two things—sexting and abuse—have since been linked in my mind.
I daresay the explosion in cell phone usage—especially in Appalachia (in which Steubenville is located), where technology has been slower to reach our teens, due to both poverty and access—means not many parents have taken the time to discuss cell phone protocol with their children. Or maybe they just expect their teens to know it’s morally wrong to take photos of a girl too drunk to consent to two boys putting their fingers in her vagina.
But apparently parents don’t realize this, and teens don’t know this. Or worse yet, they simply don’t care. That’s what the research indicates, anyway. In a 2012 study conducted by the psychology department at University of Utah, researchers surveyed 606 teens ages 14–18 about sexting. Their findings? Wikipedia reported almost “20 percent of the students said they had sent a sexually explicit image of themselves via cell phone, and nearly twice as many said that they had received a sexually explicit picture. Of those receiving such a picture, over 25 percent indicated that they had forwarded it to others.”
Now here’s where those students’ behavior becomes alarming: Among the ones who sent a sexually explicit picture, “over a third had done so despite believing that there could be serious legal and other consequences if they got caught.” The study found they even considered it acceptable.
What did the researchers conclude? “These results argue for educational efforts such as cell phone safety assemblies, awareness days, integration into class curriculum and teacher training, designed to raise awareness about the potential consequences of sexting among young people.” (I’m guessing they focused on schools taking the lead in this area because they realized the study result showed that parents weren’t doing so.)
I’m 49 and I’ve never taken a sexually explicit picture of myself—much less sent it to someone else. Nor have I received such a photo via a text or even an email. (Not that being 49 means you aren’t apt to do stupid things like this. We have numerous high-profile cases of sports heroes and celebrities who have done just that. Some of them are even older than me.) But hopefully with age comes wisdom, and the ability to realize when a potentially stupid action might come back to haunt you. With a vengeance you never anticipated.
I’ve never sexted, and that’s probably because I grew up with rules. Those rules taught my generation that taking photos of another person’s private parts and then sharing said photo with 7 billion people was wrong. It just went without saying. Breaking the rules meant you suffered the consequences—which could have been a stern talk, a spanking or the loss of privileges.
I wonder how many Steubenville parents would have confiscated their teens’ cell phones, had the police not done it first. Because that’s the other issue here. No one’s really talking about it, but today’s youth are flirting with dangerous behavior that not just borders on the criminal—it is criminal. And their parents are either too distracted to care, or too busy to enact and then enforce the discipline that should automatically accompany a teen’s wayward actions.
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My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”