What Tyler Clementi’s Death Can Teach Parents

Prosecutors in New Jersey are throwing the book at Rutger’s student Dharun Ravi, two years after he spied on his homosexual roommate who later jumped off the George Washington Bridge. The trial has just begun and promises to be on the news for the next several days and weeks. When the story first broke, we were told that Tyler Clementi had a gay sexual encounter with a man which his roommate posted on the internet, consequently outing his shy roommate.  It turns out, none of this was accurate.  In an in depth New Yorker article, Ian Parker sets the record straight: “There was no posting, no observed sex, and no closet.” (Most people believe that Dharun – though not a sympathetic person — doesn’t deserve to be criminalized.)

There are some lessons  parents can learn from this travesty, and they aren’t what you think.  Jill Joiner and I wrote an article, called “The Death of Secrecy,” which was written at the time of Tyler’s death:

After Rutgers student Tyler Clementi’s roommate webcast Clementi’s encounter with another man, he jumped off the George Washington Bridge, apparently unable to deal with the shame.  Across America, celebrities like Paula Abdul, Ciara, Perez Hilton, sex-advice columnist Dan Savage and Ellen DeGeneres all expressed devastation about the student’s death, and MTV filmed anti-suicide announcements. But more than the latest cause célèbre, parents struggling to raise children in the digital age are left scratching their heads.  How do we protect our kids from people inclined to do evil who find many easy opportunities on the internet?  The web has essentially ushered in the death of secrecy, as every flaw or skeleton can be potentially broadcast to millions.

If parents are talking to their kids at all about the internet, they almost universally have the same (wise) warning: be careful what you allow to get posted on the web, because it will last forever.

Moms and dads everywhere worry that a moment of indiscretion will haunt their otherwise well-meaning children’s lives indefinitely.  Will their kids’ future boss google them before a job interview and see a high school keg party?  Will a potential husband or wife google them before a date and see an ill-advised video posted on Youtube or Facebook?

This chilling scenario –  the death of secrecy — is enough to scare parents into dire warnings and finger wagging over the potential consequences of the internet.  And Tyler Clementi’s death represents the culmination of all of our worst fears, in one fateful incident.

However, well-meaning parents might be missing the point in their admonitions about the evil nature of the internet.  Yes, its lack of accountability and ubiquitous anonymity does give mean-spirited people a platform for their bullying.  Is there any redemption to be found in the tool that was used to bring such despair to a person, a family, and ultimately an entire nation?

Surprisingly, yes.

Just as the unfortunate incident in the dorm room graphically reminds us, the internet has a way of bringing what is done in the darkness to light. And it might not be an entirely bad thing.

Once you can get past the glossy, well-selected profile photos, our kid’s Facebook pages reveal what matters most to them.  If we are “friends” with them, we might be able to notice the tone they use to talk to others, can see first hand whether they are flirtatious or shy, and know what they really think about your vacations.  Through these and other channels, we begin to see their hearts – their real hearts — one post at a time.

Good parents know – even study — their kids… not as pesky spies attempting to thwart their next step, but as people who genuinely cherish them and want to know them better.  We must see them for what they are, not what we want them to be.  In the past, parents might hear a tidbit from a neighbor (“your son had a lot of visitors while you were gone Saturday night…”) or some scoop from their friends parents (“Timmy told me Johnny seems to really be getting in a lot of trouble in basketball practice…”) about the true nature of our kids.  But in the internet age, we have a unique ability to actually see — with our own eyes — the way they choose to represent themselves to their friends, and the world.

It takes guts to deal with their hearts — instead of their future reputations — and to look at them honestly as flawed human beings who need loving training and guidance as they try to figure out life.

That’s why — if used wisely by savvy parents who aren’t afraid to look at their kids in all of their moral complexity — the internet, which brought devastation to the entire Rutgers community — might be one of the strongest weapons in our arsenal when it comes to studying the most precious of subjects.

Our kids.

About Nancy French

Nancy French is a three time New York Times Best Selling Author.

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