The Powerful Potential of Your Words

Screen Shot 2014-03-24 at 12.24.48 PMEditor’s Note: I am pleased to feature Sandy Kendell, who works with me as a member of the #digcit Twitter chat team, as this month’s Help Desk Guest Blogger. Sandy Kendell, M.Ed., is an Educational Technology Specialist in Texas with 20 years of experience in K-12 education. Sandy’s professional experience includes classroom teaching and instructional technology facilitation at the campus and district levels. She is also an experienced conference presenter, trainer, and panelist. Her areas of interest include digital citizenship and ethics, mobile learning, social media in education, online blended and distance learning, and educator professional development. You can connect with Sandy on Twitter where she is known as @EdTechSandyK, follow her education and cute animal postings on Pinterest, or read more of her education writing at the EdTechSandyK Blog.

Virtual Words Bring Real Consequences

The World Wide Web is 25 years old this month, and because of it we live in a world where communication has never been easier. The ability to connect with virtually anyone via a few keystrokes or taps is powerful, and it is good practice to think first before we post online.

I sincerely hope that no one reading this article ever gets into difficulties that are anything close to what the students in the real-life scenarios detailed below have gotten into. A few things I encourage you to ask yourself when posting online are:

  • What might someone who hasn’t met me think about me if they read this?
  • This language may be funny to my friends, or they may understand what I mean, but how might it be interpreted if taken out of context of our conversations?
  • Would I say this in front of my parent/religious leader/teacher/grandparent/other adult I really respect?
  • Is the purpose of what I’m posting informational (just sharing facts), encouraging (wanting to pump up someone else), or hurtful (pointing out someone’s weakness or making fun of them in any way, even in “jest”)?

If the answers to any of the above questions give you pause, it’s a sign you should rethink what you are about to do. The young people in the stories below could have benefitted from asking themselves such questions.

Trouble on the Twitters

Twitter. It’s a fun tool to use to keep up with celebrities and friends. And it’s so much like text messaging students often forget that their audience often ranges far beyond their followers. Even if you have a protected account, one screen shot of something you’ve said can be instantly shared with the rest of the world. Here are a couple examples showing how Twitter has gotten students into trouble.

  • No scholarship for you. – A coach from the University of Charleston Tweeted in April of 2013 that his program decided not to make an offer to a high school student based on what they saw on the student’s Twitter account. No details on exactly what the student posted, but it is proof that colleges who are interested in high school students really could be watching. It’s probably safest to assume that they are.
  • Teachers have feelings, too. – It’s easy to snark on Twitter. Whether the snark is “in jest” or not really does not matter if it hurts the feelings of its target. That includes teachers. Your teachers have to maintain a certain professional demeanor, and because of that it might seem they have pretty tough skin. But here’s some inside scoop – our feelings can and do get hurt! I have a high school math teacher friend who contacted me a couple of years ago when she accidentally found very mean comments about her on Twitter, posted by one of her students. She was as hurt and angry as she would have been if the comments had been made to her face, just like any one of us likely would be.Snarking at teachers might include commenting on their appearance, their classroom, or their teaching methods in anything but a positive manner. Check out this video of teachers reading mean Tweets their students sent out about them. What would your high school video class find if they did a similar project?

Firestorms on Facebook

Although statistics show teens are using Facebook less and less, the lessons some teens have learned the hard way from thoughtless Facebook posts can be translated to any other networks (Instagram, Tumblr, etc.) you are using online. If you do research on either of the scenarios referenced below, you’ll see there is controversy over whether or not the students should have been charged with crimes. No matter which side of the argument you take, one thing is for sure: These teens’ actions led to trouble neither they nor their families were looking for.

  • Out of tune on a sensitive subject. – Cameron D’Ambrosio aspires to be a rapper. Sharing lyrics online is one way for a future entertainer to get attention, but referencing that he had bigger plans than the Boston Marathon bombers brought concern from his fellow students and legal action from authorities. After a month of legal wrangling, charges against Cameron were dropped. He avoided a possible twenty years in prison, but who knows how his future opportunities might be impacted by the stories that will forever show up when he is googled?
  • J/K and LOL don’t make it ok. – Just two months after the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, a Central Texas teenager posted the following on a Facebook group where fellow online gamers were talking smack: “I think Ima shoot up a kindergarten / And watch the blood of the innocent rain down / And eat the beating heart of one of them.” Although he added “j/k” and “lol” to the post, a woman in Canada who saw his words did not think Justin Carter’s comments were funny, and reported them to authorities. A year later, the case remains unresolved. Justin is only out of jail because a private citizen put up the $500,000 his family could not afford, and he still faces trial and up to ten years in prison for making a terroristic threat. Whether a threat was ultimately intended or not is up to the courts to decide, but if not, Justin is paying a high price for careless smack talk.

My ultimate take-away from the stories above and the countless others like them that I encounter as I continuously look for resources on digital citizenship is this:

Remember the powerful potential of your words. Focus on using them to educate and build up yourself and others. If we all focused on using our words this way, stories like the ones above would become things of the past. And that would be of great benefit to us all.


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