Life online can lead to bullying, loss of privacy

Andrew Krasniak opened his Facebook account during his junior year of high school. But now the 20-ye

Andrew Krasniak opened his Facebook account during his junior year of high school.

But now the 20-year-old Union College student is considering deleting his account, largely because of concerns that employers and graduate school admissions departments might use Facebook to dig up information about him.

“The amount of information people can find on Facebook makes you uneasy,” said Krasniak, a junior from Clinton. “Everybody I know sets their account on private.”

But there’s another reason Krasniak might delete his Facebook account, which he mainly uses to communicate with friends on campus and from his hometown.

“Once you get older, you grow out of it,” Krasniak said, while walking across campus early one evening. “Facebook is just convenient. I don’t even particularly like it. But it lets you stay in touch with friends from all over the country.”

The ease of keeping up with old friends is one of the Internet’s upsides. The downside, many say, is the erosion of privacy that results from exposing personal, sometimes intimate, details to a public audience.

The recent suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, whose sexual encounter with another man in his dorm room was broadcast online by his roommate, has sparked a nationwide conversation on cyberbullying and raised questions about the role social media such as Facebook and Twitter play in such incidents. Cyberbullying occurs when a person is tormented, threatened or embarrassed through current technologies.

Krasniak said cyberbullying isn’t common on his campus; recording a fellow student having sex and broadcasting it to a live audience would be an aberration. But he added, “You hear about things.” What happened to Clementi was sad, “but it wasn’t shocking.”

Perception of distance

Researchers and sociologists say that social media are changing how people interact and possibly blurring the line between public and private, particularly for younger people who have grown up online. One local scholar, Carlos Godoy, an assistant professor of communication at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, suggested that the social norms of behavior that prevail in the real world haven’t transferred online, where the cloak of anonymity allows people to express themselves far more rudely than they would in person.

“Kids don’t think the same rules apply when they’re online,” said Godoy, whose research focuses on the impact of the Internet on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. “They can be cruel. Adults, too. They see being online as an opportunity to get out visceral reactions to things they don’t like.”

Bullying has always existed. But the Internet “creates interpersonal distance,” Godoy said. “If you post awful things on someone’s Facebook page, you don’t know how miserable you’ve made them. . . . Kids think they’re alone when they’re not alone.”

Richard Lachman, a professor of sociology at the University at Albany, said, “Students still think privacy is important, but today their circle of friends might be huge, and it might include people they’ve only met online.”

John Brueggemann, the Quadracci Professor in Social Responsibility at Skidmore College, agreed. “There’s a lack of awareness that when you make your life available to a small group of people, it becomes available to a much larger group.”

Few words, big impact

Marcus Hotaling, director of the counseling center at Union College, began researching the psychological impacts of social networking sites about four years ago, after meeting with a student who was processing the end of a relationship. What interested him, he said, was that the student found changing her relationship status on Facebook extremely upsetting — more upsetting, it seemed, than the breakup itself. Facebook allows users to choose from a menu of descriptors — such as “in a relationship,” married, single or “it’s complicated” — to describe their relationship status. When you change your status, an announcement goes out to all of your Facebook friends.

“Every student has a Facebook account,” said Hotaling, who gives presentations on social media in an effort to make people more aware that online actions have consequences. “They text each other. A lot of socializing is done via text and Facebook. There’s a lot of communication with people at other schools. In the past, maybe you’d write a letter.”

Sometimes, he said, students befriend people at other schools through the Internet and maintain contact even though they’ve never met in person.

“The ability to stay in touch and communicate is good, but the way that you communicate online — in short bursts and on chatrooms — misses the body language and verbal cues, the intimacy,” Hotaling said.

Putting it all out there

Students don’t always understand that posting messages and pictures online can have negative outcomes, Hotaling said: “Graduate schools and employers are going to look at their Facebook account or Google their name.”

In 2006 a woman named Stacy Snyder was barred from receiving her Bachelor of Science degree in education and stripped of her teaching certificate by Millersville University in Pennsylvania after her professors discovered a picture of Snyder in a pirate hat drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption “drunken pirate.” Last week, Krystal Ball, a Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia, was forced to explain a series of suggestive costume party photos that emerged on two conservative blogs.

“Without a doubt, [social media] erodes privacy,” Hotaling said. Of the Clementi situation, he said, “My guess is that what started out as a prank or a lack of understanding turned into a broadcast sexual encounter. Ten years ago, this might have been something for the rumor mill.”

Lachman said people are using social media to communicate all sorts of details about their lives that they never did before.

“They communicate this worthless junk,” he said. “It’s not necessarily more informative. You’d never call up a friend and say that you’re going to get a cup of coffee.”

Godoy said people have always established their identities through association — who they hang out with, what music they listen to, where they spend time. Now those associations “are being subsumed by technology” and a person’s identity also includes where they choose to establish an online profile and interact with other people online.

“College kids are a lot more savvy,” Godoy said. “They expect you to have a web presence. They wonder what’s wrong with you if you don’t. It’s very different from adults. With adults, this isn’t part of their identity.”

Godoy said the Internet does have an upside. People can find services online; gay people who haven’t come out to family and friends and feel socially isolated might be able to connect with like-minded people who can offer support and advice.

Bad behavior

Brueggemann said that surreptitiously broadcasting a roommate’s sexual encounter is a rotten thing to do but that it’s impossible to blame social media for what happened to Tyler Clementi.

“The technology is a vehicle or a tool, like the printing press, for getting a message out,” he said. “[The technology] doesn’t act. People do, and they use these tools in different ways.”

Brueggemann is the author of a new book, “Rich, Free and Miserable: The Failure of Success in America,” which examines why so many successful people are miserable, at work and at home, struggling emotionally and financially in the world’s most prosperous nation. In his book, he writes that people are working harder than ever in pursuit of wealth and material goods, and this has eroded our sense of community and contributed to an overall loss of civility in everyday life.

The Clementi situation “reaffirms my impression that people are communicating in increasingly thoughtless and fragmented ways,” Brueggemann said. The Internet, combined with the weakened moral order he documents in his book, “makes bullying very efficient. … By not maintaining privacy, by not protecting boundaries, we degrade private life.”

A survey released last week by the Associated Press and mtvU (a division of MTV) found that 57 percent of college students believe life without computers and cellphones would make them more stressed and about 25 percent said it would be a relief. A majority said they feel pressured to instantly answer texts or voice mails and they get nervous if someone doesn’t immediately reply to a message. Nearly half said they worried about whether the messages they receive are jokes.

The two students who broadcast Clementi’s sexual encounter allegedly used a webcam to secretly record what Clementi believed was a private encounter; the two students, Dharun Ravi — Clementi’s roommate — and Molly Wei, both 18-year-old freshmen from New Jersey, have been charged with invasion of privacy.

Ravi’s Twitter account is now closed, but according to press reports, he posted messages about Clementi’s sexual orientation. In one, posted on Sept. 19, he wrote, “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”

It is unclear whether Clementi had told his friends and family he was gay.

But he was just as adept with social media as his roommate, even announcing his suicide — “jumping off the gw bridge sorry” — on Facebook.

There have been other high-profile cases of cyberbullying.

The best known occurred in 2006, when 13-year-old Megan Meier of Daddenne Prairie, Mo., hanged herself after she was rejected through MySpace by a person who claimed to be a teenage boy. The boy was actually the fictional creation of the mother of a girl Meier had had a falling-out with.

Union College senior Hilary Zelson said she has been using Facebook less and less.

“The older you get, the less interested you are in it,” the 21-year-old from Westchester said. “It’s just sort of there. I get bored with it. There’s only so much you can do on Facebook.”

Zelson said people approach Facebook differently, depending on their personality.

“Some people worry about jobs,” she said. “Some people post racy things. I have my settings on private. Unless you’re a friend, you can’t see my information.”

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