A judge ordered a Colorado Springs teen Tuesday to apologize for disgraceful behavior on Facebook, highlighting how social media can be society’s enemy or friend.
The Falcon High School student admitted to accusations by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office that he bullied classmates on Facebook. It’s a story all too common in a world of ever-emerging social networking options, blogs and online discussion threads associated with traditional media.
As a friend, Facebook, Twitter and other interactive sites bring people closer. Family photos used to hide in attics, seldom shared with loved ones. Today, they are easily shared around the globe within moments of a shutter click. Grandparents have instant access to first days of school and big plays on the field.
We connect and reconnect like never before, with people who decades ago merely drifted from our lives forever.
Even greater, social media sites save lives. Until they came along, people with depression typically languished in silence. Today, friends and family sometimes detect trouble from the mere tone of updates shared on Facebook or Twitter. Given knowledge of despair, people tend to reach out. We cannot know how many suicides or crimes have been stopped because someone wrote “I give up” in a routine update and someone else reached out.
“Hello...is anyone out there? I am having a serious problem and me and (my son) will be dead by morning,” wrote a Utah woman who was held captive in 2011 by a predator before she sneaked into a closet and quickly posted a Facebook message. The post saved the woman and her son.
Now the bad news. As our enemy, social media sites provide playgrounds so enticing that pre-Internet bullies could not have dreamed them up. Almost anyone who uses social networks has been blasted by an anonymous poster saying things few would communicate to another person’s face at any place or time outside the virtual world. Unlike their low-tech counterparts, cyber-bullies broadcast their insults far and wide. In a few high-profile cases, social network bullies, young and old, have caused suicides.
New media gives us unprecedented freedom to communicate, which presents limitless possibilities. Enhanced freedom requires enhanced self restraint. Without it, centralized authority will rein in liberty just to maintain civility. Even the God-given right to speak freely cannot be preserved if savaged by abusers of freedom who indulge opportunities to communicate with reckless disregard for others.
In cultures throughout history, people of high character have summarized the need to guard freedom with self-control.
“One can be the master of what one does, but never of what one feels,” wrote 19th century French novelist Gustave Flaubert.
With that insight, we know feelings should not always control actions. Those who feel the need to skewer others on social media should wait a few moments and give their intellects time to kick in. Then, they should proceed with compassion, following the words of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt:
“To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.”
Social media serves as a cultural asset and liability each moment of the day. Only our hearts and minds can raise the positive and diminish the negative. Let’s check our hearts and minds before we click “post,” preserving freedom and civility for generations to come.