On June 19, Dhuran Ravi walked out of the Middlesex County Jail. He had served 20 days of a 30-day sentence stemming from multiple counts of invasion of privacy, witness tampering, and bias intimation after he remotely viewed and shared information about a sexual encounter between Tyler Clementi and a male acquaintance. It was only a few days after the incident that Clementi, 18, a fellow Rutger’s freshman and Ravi’s roommate, jumped from the George Washington Bridge. His death ignited a firestorm of media attention on the role of digital technology in what’s been defined as a new age of bullying.

While Joe and Jane Clementi, Tyler’s parents, have issued many statements since their son’s death, it was only after the verdict in New Jersey’s case against Ravi, on March 16, 2012, that they openly reflected on alternatives to criminalization.

“There are other ways that are better,” said Joe Clementi that afternoon, “particularly when it comes to changing the values and behavior of young people in important areas of respect, privacy, [and] responsibility in the digital world.”

The plea for a more tempered approach toward legislation that attempts to eliminate bullying and digital abuse has been routinely encoded in editorials on the verdict. Well expressed by media scholar Mary L. Gray in a piece for The Huffington Post, others echo a similar stance—that the homophobia Ravi is said to have exhibited in the Fall of 2010 doesn’t simply reflect an individual position, but a larger cultural condition. As J. Bryan Lowder concludes, “Unfortunately, we can’t lock the bully up, because the bully is in all of us.”

“Unfortunately, we can’t lock the bully up, because the bully is in all of us.”

While the LGBTQ community has been outspoken concerning Tyler’s death, it’s clear the majority of teens and young adults experience high rates of digital abuse and discrimination. A 2011 AP-MTV poll found that 56 percent of those ages 14-24 have experienced abuse through digital and social media, and groups frequently targeted include those who are overweight (54 percent), lesbian, gay, or bisexual (51 percent), African-American (45 percent), female (44 percent), or immigrants to the U.S. (35 percent).

Phoebe Prince, 15, a high school student from Massachusetts who had recently arrived in the States from Ireland, experienced severe abuse, both online and off, before taking her own life in 2010. Those close to the case report Prince was targeted for having sexual relationships with popular older boys from her school, revealing that sexual orientation is but one component of this cultural condition.

Another alarming death, that of Abraham Biggs, 19, illustrates how ill-equipped online communities are at handling complex and potentially life-threatening situations. Biggs was found dead in 2008 after broadcasting live from his bedroom his suicide to the online video site Justin.tv. A college freshman with a history of mental health issues, records show that many on Biggs’ contact list egged him on to take an overdose of antidepressants that eventually killed him.

Although the destructive nature of bullying is at the center of media attention, the issue is neither new, nor on the rise. What is novel is a digital world of transparency and anonymity that often evens out the playing field, in both good ways and bad. As Walter Kirn wrote in the New York Times following Clementi’s death, “The viral and archival nature of the Internet, like anything else, has polar ends of the spectrum, where in one instance an invasion of privacy compounds personal torment, while the competing side provides for fame and a potential fortune.”

Young people in particular are apt to experiment with who they are, and who they can potentially be in the online environment. While a vital part of their development, as one juror from the Clementi trial concluded, “Deletion is futile.” Mistakes made by teens and young adults today cannot so easily be erased tomorrow.

So, how can society create educational investments that transform this cultural condition? What’s more, how do educators reach young adults, for whom this information is needed most? Media scholar danah boyd and John Palfrey, Director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, wrote this past February, “focusing on punishment alone does little to address the underlying issues … we are badly underfunding youth empowerment programs that could help enormously.”

Young people experiment with who they are, and who they can be in the online environment. While a vital part of their development, as one juror from the Clementi trial concluded, “Deletion is futile.”

Following the high-profile deaths of Biggs, Clementi, Prince, and others, there has been a welcome but modest increase in the number of empowerment programs developed for young people. The most visible initiatives rely heavily on the tradition of storytelling to connect with Millennials, generating conversations on terms they feel are fair and representative of their opinions. The It Gets Better Project, founded by Dan Savage and Terry Miller in 2010, relies on video uploads from individuals and communities across the country. These narratives offer diverse commentary on a simple message, that there is a connected and united support system for LGBTQ teens who face discrimination. The model turns the anonymity of the Internet into an intimate one-on-one encounter between viewer and video author.

A THIN LINE, launched by MTV in 2009, is another multi-year initiative that meets teens on their turf. The campaign’s approach leverages MTV’s reputation, celebrity culture, and mainstream content to encourage discussion of online behaviors that cross the line into abuse. One component, the Over The Line? application, provides a platform for teens to submit personal stories relating to digital abuse, creating a virtual peer-to-peer support group. In October 2011, the network released an original TV movie, (DIS)CONNECTED, which fictionalized Biggs’s story. Its depiction of the on and offline lives of teens dealing with digital harassment, online identity, privacy, and suicide was seen by more than five million viewers.

Rather than devolving into distraction, entertainment becomes a proxy in the development of empathy and understanding.

The issues raised by the Ravi trial will live on long after the completion of his sentence, and the value of narrative should be central in strategies devoted to increasing awareness and educating young people. Strong narratives, whether fiction or non-fiction, delivered through a book, video game, YouTube clip, or film, are an influential and entertaining way to connect with these communities. Rather than devolving into distraction, entertainment thus becomes a proxy for sophisticated teaching tools that support the development of empathy and understanding.

By exploring the inner-realm and outward actions of relatable characters, even antagonists serve to model for audiences the short and long-term consequences of everyday choices. As Keith Oatley, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, recently remarked to the New York Times, “just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories, and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

There is also evidence that the suspension of disbelief experienced during fictional storytelling can overcome even the most engrained biases. The work of Markus Appel, professor of psychology at the University of Linz, has repeatedly shown that fictional narratives have a persistent and implicit influence on world views, and these effects may last longer than relying on rational arguments alone. Studies of mainstream TV shows, such as the long running Will & Grace, provide evidence that simulated contact with “the other” helps some viewers overcome prejudice.

While the drawn-out case and hotly debated sentencing of Ravi has increased attention around long-standing social issues and the real-time technologies that make them easier to chronicle and reproduce, it will take accessible, non-threatening, and persuasive initiatives to establish a new cultural condition built on more compassionate social norms.

Relating to one another through shared stories is a universal way to address even the most difficult and controversial topics, and educators are lucky enough to live in an age with more ways than ever to tackle powerful and persuasive narratives for change.

Images: Jovelle Tamayo, The Daily Targum; DeclanTM; NBC

  1. Peq says:

    I don’t want to make light of the fact the someone ctiomtmed suicide but I look at this through a sociological perspective especially in this new age of social media. There is still this perceived divide between our online identity and our real life which is proving more and more to be a false divide. People need to realize that what you might be screaming into the crowd and not just a select audience of friends when you post things online. And if you think screaming something private out in a campus food court may have grave implications (other than people looking at you like a weirdo which isn’t that grave), it’s possible twittering it may have have even worst.

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