Guest Opinion: Front-loading respect and compassion in the digital age
Like many people throughout the world, I'm mesmerized by the Olympics.
The pomp of the opening ceremony in London, the parade of athletes from all over the world, the tenacity of the underdog Egyptian men's soccer team's second half against soccer power Brazil, the smile of 17-year-old Colorado high school student Missy Franklin when she won the women's 100-meter backstroke last week, and then dedicated her medal to the victims of the Aurora movie theater massacre. The list goes on and on...
I'm finding myself equally mesmerized by other Olympic headlines; the headlines of yet another athlete being kicked out of the Olympics for racist tweets.
There is no doubt that the 2012 Olympics are being fashioned and changed by social media that was just in its toddlerhood four years ago in Beijing.
Greek triple-jumper Paraskevi Papachristou was kicked off her country's Olympic team before the start of the Games after she posted an offensive comment on her Twitter account:
"With so many Africans in Greece, the mosquitoes from the West Nile will at least be eating some homemade food," the tweet read.
Papachristou later apologized, but the damage was done, both to herself and to the many Olympic athletes competing from Africa. The Hellenic Olympic Committee barred her from competing.
Early last week, Swiss soccer player Michel Morganella posted an offensive comment after his team's 2-1 loss to South Korea. In his tweet, Morganella said he wanted to beat up South Koreans and that they should "burn." He also referred to them as "a bunch of monogloids." His Twitter account has been deleted, but the damage was already done. He was sent home from the Games.
The 23-year-old player later released the following statement:
"I am sincerely sorry for the people of South Korea, for the players, but equally for the Swiss delegation and Swiss football in general. It's clear that I'm accepting the consequences.
"After the disappointing result and the reaction from Korea that followed, I made a huge error," Morganella added.
Again, the harm to self and others was huge. Morganella was stripped of his Olympic accreditation after insulting the dignity of the South Korea soccer team.
The Swiss Olympic team chief has said of Morganella after stripping him of Olympic accreditation,"We hope that he will draw the necessary lessons for his still young football career," an Olympic spokesperson said.
So how are "these necessary lessons drawn" in a world of living out loud? A world where thoughts and messages, often sent without much forethought, become permanent digital tattoos and change the lives of not only the athletes that face the enormous consequences, but also greatly hurt the recipients of their tweets?
How are children and teens who look to these athletes as heros going to "draw the necessary lessons" from broken dreams, lost careers, racist rants, insensitive comments and hurt national pride?
It would be much simpler to call these offensive tweets an aberration, a one-time event from a few insensitive athletes, or to "ban the tool" from the Games. But from my work with children and teens, I know that neither is an effective response. Banning the tool does not solve the problem and marginalizing these athletes is both an inhumane response and loses this opportunity to truly learn from these events.
Social media it is not going away. The immediacy and public nature of Facebook and Twitter has made it necessary to teach children and youth the importance of thoughtful communication, respect and compassion on-line. We need to help children learn, as early as elementary school, the power and permanence of the words they chose to post, tweet, share and forward. We need to help them understand that with the great power of the Internet comes great responsibility. And it is only through early education that we can front-load thoughtful use, respect and compassion in the digital age.
Gloria Moskowitz-Sweet has been a school social worker, educator, program developer and university lecturer since 1981. She was the coordinator of Parents Place Community Education and Bullying Prevention Center on the Peninsula for five years and a lecturer in the graduate program of social work at San Jose State University for 20 years. Her company, mydigitaltat2.com, has an office in Palo Alto. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.