Rutgers student death: Has Digital Age made students callous?

Some observers believe that today's media environment is desensitizing young people to the hurtful effects of their actions. The case of a Rutgers student death is renewing scrutiny of this issue.

Mel Evans/AP
Rutgers University students sign condolence cards Friday, Oct. 1, at Rutgers in New Brunswick, N.J., for the family of fellow student Tyler Clementi. Mr. Clementi, a student at Rutgers University, killed himself Sept. 22.
Ryan Pifher/The Record of Bergen County/AP/File
In this 2009 photo, Tyler Clementi plays with the Ridgewood High School Orchestra at a benefit dinner. Clementi, a student at Rutgers University,

The story of Tyler Clementi is bringing to light the darker side of the pervasiveness of social media in young people’s lives. It’s prompting renewed calls for everything from more specific antibullying education to stronger consequences for harmful uses of media technology.

Mr. Clementi, a freshman at the Rutgers University campus in Piscataway, N.J., killed himself Sept. 22. According to prosecutors, a few days earlier his roommate, Dharun Ravi, and another student, Molly Wei, used a Web cam to secretly transmit images of a sexual encounter between Clementi and another man. They intended to do so again on Sept. 21, the prosecutors say.

While the Rutgers student death is an extreme case, “a lot of kids are using digital technology to spy on each other,” says Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety, an online safety group based in Fort Lee, N.J. “It’s the weapon of choice often with older teens and young adults – spying on someone and broadcasting what they’ve learned.”

Spreading information and images online can make it more emotionally wrenching than previous, more-localized forms of sharing – such as posting embarrassing photos on a bulletin board, Ms. Aftab and other media experts say. Digital images can be cached on the Web, and they can pop up when a person’s name is searched.

“The sense of lost privacy, the sense of devastation ... potentially is multiplied,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project in Washington.

But can the new media itself, in part, be blamed for such cases?

“We are tempted to think that social-media technology drove the behavior, but as a truly ethical matter, the behavior has to be and should be considered human-driven, not technology-driven,” says Scott Foulkrod, a philosophy professor at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania. The school recently blocked the use of social media for a week to prompt discussions about its role in everyday life.

Other observers of youth culture and media culture believe the media environment – including reality shows that use hidden cameras – is desensitizing young people to the hurtful effects of their actions.

“There have been some studies that suggest that it [new media technology] does dissolve some of the human connections: It objectifies people,” says Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, an education program based at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.

One recent University of Michigan study found that college students’ empathy declined by about 40 percent between 1979 and 2009, with the biggest drop-off occurring after 2000.

“We’re seeing more and more of this callous indifference,” Ms. Aftab says. She doesn’t want to paint a whole generation with a broad brush, because many young people are using social media only for good. But when malicious intent or even just a notion of entertainment is paired with the instant nature of Web-broadcasting technology, “you can do it, and you get caught up in it,” she says. “It’s that lack of time to contemplate the consequences.”

Nina Montgomery, a freshman at Dartmouth who attended high school with Clementi in Ridgewood, N.J., says her generation of digital natives is getting bored and looking for ways to experiment with new technology. As a result, she believes, more cases as severe as this one at Rutgers will occur. “I don’t think people understand the great responsibility that comes with the power of the Internet,” she says.

But Ms. Montgomery is doing her part to change that. Educated by WiredSafety as an anti-cyberbullying “Teenangel,” she is helping to launch a Stand Up, Speak Out campaign “to encourage kids that you’re not alone in this [as a target of bullying] ... and that you shouldn’t feel that taking your own life is your only option,” she says.

According to school antibullying experts, it’s essential to appeal to bystanders. But if someone is watching a video on his or her personal device, that individual is a further step removed and may not even know if the images are “real” or staged.

Cyberspying and other forms of cyberbullying not only show a lapse in college students’ empathy, but also indicate “that we need to work with them on their critical thinking skills,” says Gwen Dungy, executive director of NASPA, a group of student-affairs administrators in Washington. Her group started the Enough Is Enough campaign in conjunction with K-12 educators in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, to stem social violence by helping students understand how to build a sense of community.

Tolerance for differences, including homosexuality, should be promoted widely on college campuses, Ms. Dungy says.

Clementi’s story has rallied the gay community, with everyone from Ellen DeGeneres to former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey speaking out in recent days.

“We can’t allow bullying, period, for any students, but we do need to bring up the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] component. If you don’t confront the reasons why people are being bullied, you’ve failed to fix that problem,” says Paul Guequierre, deputy press secretary of the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group in Washington.

At least three younger teens killed themselves in September after experiencing homophobic bullying.

If Clementi identified as gay, he was not open about it, so the case has sparked particular outrage as a public “outing.”

New Jersey officials are reportedly investigating whether bias charges can be brought against Mr. Ravi and Ms. Wei. Some of the privacy charges currently against them carry a maximum of five years in prison.

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, had just launched a major civility project on campus when news of Clementi’s death emerged. Rutgers President Richard McCormick expressed sympathy to Clementi’s family and noted that the case was being investigated by campus officials. “If the charges are true, these actions gravely violate the university’s standards of decency and humanity,” his Sept. 29 statement said.

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