By NICK CHILES
Now that the verdict has been delivered in the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case, sending two football players to imprisonment in the juvenile justice system for a year or two, it’s become increasingly clear that none of us, neither parents nor teenagers, have any handle on what kind of monstrous beast social media has become in the lives of American teenagers.
The two high school football stars were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl while she was passed out, drunk from alcohol, and then using text messaging and cellphone pictures to broadcast their misdeeds to the entire high school community. Social media made their crime known to many other teens, who sent around the documentation of the assault while doing little or nothing to protect the girl. Social media also helped get justice for the victim after a group of online activists, who called themselves “Anonymous,” started a social media campaign to leak details about people they believe are involved in covering up the full extent of the assault.
This particular case combined the perceived cloak of anonymity that social media provides with the teenage inclination to cruelty—and the result was a molotov cocktail of vicious acts, all perpetrated at the expense of a girl who made the mistake of drinking too much in the presence of young men who had little regard for her safety or her humanity.
As social media continues to creep into most every aspect of a teenager’s life, these sorts of cases are becoming more and more common—kids using technology to bully each other or worse and amplifying their misdeeds by sending them out to their entire school community.
As parents, we’re the first and the last line of defense against these sorts of abuses. In my home, I feel like we’re talking to our teenage daughter on an almost daily basis about the protocols and potential dangers of that powerful tool she carries around in her hand 24/7. With her face hidden in the phone almost every time you look in her direction, the phone is a constant presence in our house. And knowing how much trouble the phone could cause her, sometimes it feels like we’re opening the front door and letting a potential predator freely roam in her room and throughout our home. That damn phone is a scary little monster.
Of course, the presence of the phone makes it even harder to have the frequent meaningful conversations we need to be having about the things that should and should not be happening on the phone—after all, a meaningful conversation would mean somebody having to look up from her phone.
But everytime I hear about yet another case like the one in Steubenville, I know that we have to keep up the talks. We can’t afford to give ground, to let her get comfortable with brushing us off with the scowls and the mumbled responses. No, we have to stay in there and keep putting up that good parental fight.
I wonder what she would do if somebody from her school sent her an inappropriate picture of a classmate—possibly a picture showing someone being violated. Would she come and tell us, or alert the school authorities? I’d like to think she would, but that’s why we need to keep up the talks, to affirm over and over the values she has been taught, the lessons we have been imparting about girls protecting themselves and not putting themselves in positions where others might have access to their bodies.
These two football players in Ohio, Trent Mays, 17, the quarterback, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, the wide receiver, will have plenty of time to think about the despicable nature of their crimes. Hopefully once they go through the criminal justice system they will have learned some powerful lessons.
But I wonder if their classmates learned some lessons too, about the need to protect and care for each other. That’s a lesson that we all need to make sure gets passed on to the teens in our lives. Of course, it would help if the adults involved in the case, some of whom apparently were complicit in the “rape crew” cover-up in their quest to protect the town’s high school football program, would bode well to set the example. (The football coach, some parents and even some law enforcement officials have been implicated in a cover-up.)
After Judge Thomas Lipps read the decision in Juvenile Court, a sobbing Richmond told his lawyer, “My life is over.”
No, he has time to reclaim his life, to make amends with his soul. He took a step in that direction when he walked toward the victim’s family and said: “I had not intended to do anything like this. I’m sorry to put you through this.” He was too broken up to say anything more.
I just hope those words, “I’m sorry,” pierced through the armor teenagers put up to keep out the world and the words were heard not just in Steubenville, Ohio, but across the country—so that our Juvenile Courts won’t have to hear too many more tearful “I’m sorry’s.”
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Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.