Last spring, the Harvard Crimson reported that at least 10 students admitted to the freshman class of 2021 had their offers rescinded after the school discovered they had posted offensive messages on a private Facebook chat set up by incoming students.
The offensive items included racist memes as well as messages and photos “mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust and the deaths of children.” One student who didn’t join the group said, “This was a just-because-we-got-into-Harvard-doesn’t-mean-we-can’t-have-fun kind of thing.”
This week it’s hard to read about this (I’ve spared you details about the more gruesome things posted) without also thinking about the female students at Weber High School who made a video of themselves effectively chanting a disgusting racial slur while riding in a car.
A school district spokesman said they apparently recorded gibberish that, when played backward on a special app, made the sound of the offensive words. The whole thing might have escaped notice except that one of the girls posted the video on a private social media account — which is, of course, as real as a unicorn. Nothing is private on the internet, as many now-former Harvard freshmen can attest.
No one should try to excuse what these girls did. They easily could have chosen to say an infinite variety of unoffensive and even clever things backward. For some reason, they chose to say what they did.
To be clear, their language was despicable and unacceptable in any context, and they need to be held accountable for it.
But understanding why they did this is no easier than understanding why kids accepted to Harvard would do things equally absurd. Are they really so insensitive and hateful, or are they just kids with immature minds and limited real-world experiences acting out in ways they don’t fully understand?
Since the early days of the 20th century, states in this country have established special juvenile courts to handle crimes committed by young people.
One reason these exist is to protect young offenders from the adults they otherwise would encounter behind bars. Another is to recognize that many people with immature minds do things as adolescents they wouldn’t dream of doing as adults. Juvenile records are sealed and protected from public view. Except for those who commit the most heinous crimes, kids who offend are given a chance to emerge from their mistakes as responsible adults.
But the internet is not so generous.
As I write this, the Weber girls’ video is posted many places, including the New York Post website and even a website belonging to an Australian news organization. Their faces are there for all to see, in full color.
People of my generation also were immature, thoughtless and even hateful as teenagers, but our fears focused mainly on not being caught by our parents, not on having our actions broadcast internationally.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, author and social media expert Ana Homayoun identified a biological basis for this kind of reckless modern behavior by adolescents. It has a lot to do with smartphones and “an instantaneous positive feedback loop that can perpetuate poor decision-making.”
“Many people view likes, loves, comments and followers as a barometer for popularity ,” she wrote. “Teens can quickly get caught up in the feedback loop, posting and sharing images and videos that they believe will gain the largest reaction.” Combine this with “an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex,” and you sometimes get offensive online posts.
Derek Olsen, an African-American man in Plain City, may have had the most rational reaction to the Weber High girls when he told the Deseret News he believes they didn’t have ill intentions and should not have their lives ruined, but that their mistake can be a learning experience.
“I believe that if we can all understand and still spread awareness that racism does exist, then maybe we can go about it a certain way and change things.”
One would have hoped the rising generation, so far removed from Jim Crow America, wouldn’t so easily succumb to the false narratives of the past. But whether it’s in Ogden or among Harvard’s freshman class, the internet makes it clear many lessons remain to be taught.
Too bad that same internet also will make it hard for many kids to learn and move on.