The Impossible Challenges Of Modern Parenting

The tragic tale of the stabbing death of Nicole Lovell is one of those stories that demonstrates, yet again, that being a parent in the modern world poses challenges that our parents and grandparents would never have thought possible.

Nicole Lovell was a 13-year-old girl who lived in Virginia.  She had liver transplant surgery that left her scarred, and she took medication that made her gain weight — which in turn caused her to be the butt of ridicule by some of the mean kids at her school.  Like many kids do these days, she turned to social media as an outlet and apparently created alternative personas on-line, on a number of different sites.  Unbeknownst to her parents, for example, she had multiple profiles on Facebook.

nicole-lovellAuthorities believe that Nicole Lovell’s social media activities brought her into contact with an 18-year-old named David Eisenhauer — a student at Virginia Tech.  According to police, Eisenhauer and another Virginia Tech student, Natalie Keepers, plotted to kill Lovell and dispose of her body.  Lovell went missing from her bedroom after midnight on January 27; her body was found days later in a remote wooded area in North Carolina.  Eisenhauer is charged with Lovell’s abduction and murder, and Keepers is charged with being an accessory.

All parents know there are bad people out there.  That’s always been true.  The difference now is that social media makes it so much easier for the bad people to find your children, interact with them, and lure them into danger.  In more innocent days, parents could ensure their children’s safety by making sure they stayed in the neighborhood.  In the modern world of America, however, physical location is no longer an assurance of safety, because the computer in the family den can be the gateway for predators.

Nicole Lovell’s story involves a lot of common, nightmare scenarios for parents: unfair bullying at school, a child entering the teenage years who feels lonely and friendless at school while feeling liberated by the anonymity and possibilities for self-reinvention that social media and the internet offer, and, in all likelihood, that youthful confidence and certainty that nothing bad will happen to them — until it tragically does.

Modern parents know of these risks, but how do they keep them under control with so many social media options available in the modern world?  One of the social media options mentioned in the news stories linked above is called Kik, which is a messaging app that allows its users to remain anonymous and send photos that aren’t saved on the phone.  Have you even heard of Kik?  I hadn’t until I read the stories about Nicole Lovell — but I bet many young teenage kids have heard about it at school.  The kids are always way ahead of the adults on the social media/technology curve.

Our children survived the teenage years and made it out into adulthood.  I’m grateful for that, because I really don’t know how modern parents are supposed to thread the needle and allow their children enough freedom and self-sufficiency to develop as autonomous human beings while ensuring that they don’t fall prey to the evil people that we know are out there.  Sometimes, as the story of Nicole Lovell suggests, modern parenting just seems impossible.

An Encouraging Development In The Fight Against ISIS

Here’s some good news to start the new year:  some Muslims are publicly and pointedly making fun of ISIS, the murderous, beheading terrorist organization that wants to establish a caliphate in the Middle East.

footage-al-baghdadis-friday-speech-which-he-appears-be-wearing-rolex-twitterThe fun began when the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — who curiously sported a Rolex in one of his prior public appearances — issued a recorded statement about the state of ISIS on the day after Christmas that said, among other things, “We urgently call upon every Muslim to join the fight.”  His statement was translated and released on social media — and then Muslims began making hilarious responses to his call:

“Sorry, bro.  Mom made pizza rolls”

“I wanna wait until April and find out what happened to Jon Snow”

“sorry but this Big Mac isn’t eating itself”

“You should have told me before. I just renewed my pornhub subscription.”

“Sorry, I’m busy being a real Muslim, giving to charity etc. Also, your dental plan sucks.”

You can read the translated statements and the reactions here

Why is this encouraging and significant?  Because while military action is obviously needed to defeat the ISIS forces on the ground, the only sure way to really defeat radical Islamic terrorism long-term is to cut it off at its roots, by having Muslims everywhere reject the evil ISIS represents and thereby deprive the group of new recruits.  And when ISIS is trying to present itself as a formidable and intimidating force that represents the true Islamic faith, public mockery is a pretty effective weapon.

When an act of radical Islamic terrorism occurs, people often wonder why moderate Muslim religious leaders don’t publicly condemn the actions and the killing of innocents.  I’m not sure why the religious leaders aren’t more vocal, but it’s good to see that, in the world of social media, Muslims are speaking out and puncturing the titanic ISIS pretensions with humor.

Further Vetting The Vetting

In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings, officials are looking at whether they may have missed clues that could have predicted the murderous death spree of Syed Rizwa Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik.  And it appears that some blazing red flags were, in fact, not seen, and that the immigrant screening process employed by the United States is not, in fact, as foolproof as some advocates have represented.

The biggest missed clues were social media posts.  As the New York Times recently reported, Tashfeen Malik had talked openly on social media posts about her support for violent jihad and her interest in being part of it.  However, the agencies charged with deciding whether she should be permitted to enter the United States never saw those posts because “immigration officials do not routinely review social media as part of their background checks, and there is a debate inside the Department of Homeland Security over whether it is even appropriate to do so.”

tashfeen-malik-l-and-syed-farook-are-pictured-passing-through-chicagos-ohare-international-airport-in-this-july-27-2014-handout-photo-obtained-by-reuters-december-8-2015-reutersus-customs-and-border-pStrange, isn’t it, that in our modern, internet-obsessed age, where many people share their innermost thoughts and views on-line, that social media posts of an applicant for entry to the U.S. aren’t reviewed as a matter of course to search for violent, pro-terrorist, or anti-American sentiments?  Wouldn’t you think that unprompted social media posts are much more likely to yield insights into a would-be immigrant’s true feelings than the answers given at a stilted, formal interview with a consular official?  And it’s not as if the jihadists are shy about sharing their views on social media — after all, ISIS and other Islamic terror groups actively use the internet as a recruiting mechanism and are happy to post videos of beheadings and other bloody activities as part of their recruitment campaigns.

What’s most troubling about the New York Times article linked above is the “debate” within the government about whether it is “even appropriate” to look at social media in the visa application process.  The concluding paragraph of the Times article, apparently seeking to explain the reluctance to review social media, states:  “Social media comments, by themselves, however, are not always definitive evidence. In Pakistan — as in the United States — there is no shortage of crass and inflammatory language. And it is often difficult to distinguish Islamist sentiments and those driven by political hostility toward the United States.”

Such justifications make no sense to me.  Sure, social media posts endorsing violence might not be “definitive evidence” (whatever that means) that the writer will become a mass-murdering terrorist, but don’t we want to even check on whether someone seeking entry to our country has voiced such sentiments, and if so build that undoubtedly relevant information into our decision-making process — and maybe ask a question or two about such statements in that stilted interview?   Why take a head-in-the-sand approach to available information.

And why the curious concern about whether it is “appropriate” to look at social media postings?  After all, social media posts are public statements, available to the world.  Companies routinely review social media postings as part of the job application process, and parents counsel their children to consider how that Facebook picture of their embarrassing behavior at a boozy party might be perceived by a prospective employer.  Yet the delicate sensibilities within our government are worried that it might not be “appropriate” to look at whether the likes of Tashfeen Malik have expressed violent, anti-American views before they decide to let them enter the country?

It’s bad enough that Farook and Malik were motivated to gun down innocents in San Bernardino in furtherance of their own, twisted beliefs.  It would be inexcusable if the government did not learn from the process by which Malik gained entry and use those lessons to improve our immigration protocols and enhance the information-gathering process.  Establishing a mechanism for reviewing public social media posts of visa applicants would be a good place to start.

I Won’t Watch It

Kish and I were driving home yesterday, so we missed the TV news coverage of the awful shootings in Virginia.  We therefore didn’t see the footage of the killer gunning down two innocent people, for reasons no one will be able to explain.

We listened to the radio, though, and heard the sounds of the gunshots and the terrified and anguished screams of the witnesses — and that was bad enough.

Whatever other twisted grievances and chilling fantasies may have motivated the killer to commit a cold-blooded murder of a reporter and cameraman on live TV, it’s obvious that a desire for public attention was one of them.  I won’t give it to him, nor will I have my sensibilities jaded and perverted and corrupted by watching something so horrible.  I’m not going to look for his Facebook page, or read his “manifesto,” either, nor am I going to put a picture of him, or his criminal deed, on this post.  Consider it my little protest against publicizing the evil actions of a sick, depraved mind.

There’s a serious journalistic ethics question lurking here:  if you are a TV news program, do you broadcast the footage, which plays into the killer’s desires and potentially might lead to copycat actions, or do you decline to do so, knowing that some of your viewers might change the channel to a station that takes a different approach?  I can’t fault those outlets that broadcast the footage, on a “just report the facts” rationale, but I can applaud those networks and programs that declined to do so.  Journalists are part of society, and as a society we have an interest in discouraging murderous acts by disturbed individuals.

We live in a weird world, where ethical questions arise that wouldn’t even have been possible in an earlier, less technological age in which “social media” didn’t raise the possibility that every criminal could also become a celebrity.  Sometimes, as in the case of the Virginia shootings, it’s a truly ugly world.  I’d rather not dive into that ugliness.

The Rapper Defense

Should the standards of what constitutes an actionable threat of physical violence be changed in the era of the internet and social media?  Next week the Supreme Court will consider that question, which probes the tender intersection of the First Amendment, criminal law, and society’s interest in protecting people from impending harm.

For years the prevailing standard has been that “true threats” to harm another person are not protected free speech and can be punished under the criminal law.  The issue raised by the Supreme Court case is whether prosecutors should be required to prove that the speaker had a “subjective intent” to threaten, as opposed to showing that an objective person would consider the statements to be threatening.  A requirement of subjective intent obviously would be harder to prove.

In the Supreme Court case, the defendant created Facebook posts about his estranged wife, writing about “a thousand ways to kill you” and asking whether the protection from abuse order she received was “thick enough to stop a bullet.”  His lawyers contend that the statements are simply “therapeutic efforts to address traumatic events” and references to the violent, misogynistic imagery of the defendant’s favorite rappers.  The defendant also argues that other actions like the placement of an emoticon — a face with its tongue sticking out, purportedly to indicate “jest” — must be considered in assessing whether the speaker truly intends menacing behavior or is just blowing off steam.

I’m a big supporter of free speech, and exercises in line-drawing are always difficult, but I don’t see any need to revisit long-time legal standards just because the internet has been developed.  Domestic abuse is a huge problem, and we need to protect the abused.  If prosecutors are required to prove “subjective intent,” and the placement of emoticons or the couching of unambiguous threats of violence in the context of rap lyrics become viable defenses, the ability to protect the abused will be diminished.  I don’t know of any real “therapy” that encourages disturbed people to make specific threats of violence, and I don’t buy the argument that standards of lawful behavior should be reduced simply because some anonymous people treat the internet as a kind of free-for-all zone.

Standards exist for a reason, and we shouldn’t be in a hurry to lower them.  It’s not unfair to hold people whose behavior already has given rise to legitimate concern — like the defendant in the Supreme Court case who was the subject of a protection from abuse order — accountable for specific violent statements, on social media or otherwise.

In The Cage With Facebook Lab Rats

Some people are very upset that Facebook has admitted conducting a psychological experiment on hundreds of thousands of randomly selected users.

In the 2012 study, Facebook data scientists decided to test the hypothesis that reading about the great things “Facebook friends” are writing about their lives depresses readers, who feel that their lives kind of suck by comparison.  So, for one week, the data scientists used an algorithm on the Facebook news feeds of almost 700,000 people to delete posts with words associated with positive, or negative, emotions to see whether it affected the kinds of posts those readers made.  The study ultimately refuted that hypothesis.

A number of people feel that the experiment treated Facebook users as guinea pigs, improperly tried to manipulate their emotions, and was unethical.  I can understand the sentiment, but I think we all need to accept that we are lab rats in a vast media stew in which the overriding goal is to manipulate our emotions and perceptions — whether the active agent is a Facebook post, an email designed to provoke us to make a contribution to a political candidate, or a banner ad that touts the miracle weight-loss qualities of a previously unknown plant.  Face it, folks — it’s all just part of navigating through our media-saturated modern culture.

Knowing about Facebook’s willingness to conduct broad-scale psychological and social experiments has its positive aspects, too — it helps to explain certain otherwise inexplicable realities of Facebook.  From my occasional review of my “news feed,” I’m guessing that Facebook is currently conducting tests on these other hypotheses:

*  What is more likely to cause “de-friending”:  incessant requests to play Facebook games or posting memes that express rote sentiments and demand “click like if you agree!”?

*  Are conservatives or liberals more likely to post ludicrously overheated, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it reactions to current events?

*  Is there any location on a Facebook page where ads can be placed that readers will not be able to successfully ignore them?

*  Does the frequency of posts with pictures of food increase as Facebook users age?

That Morning Email Fix

For nearly 50 years I lived comfortably without a mobile phone.  I could go out to eat without needing to check constantly on social media, see whether I’d received a text, or take a photo of my food and post it somewhere immediately.  Now I seem to be as addicted to my handheld device as a heroin addict is to his daily fix.

IMG_6119I check my email first thing in the morning, check it routinely throughout the day, and typically do so again the last thing before I head upstairs for bed at night.  I am in a business where client service is crucially important and I want to be promptly responsive to any messages from those clients — but I know that is, in part, just a rationalization.  If I check my phone for email, I can get back to my clients in impressive time and always will seem to be in touch — but I’ll also see whether any other messages are waiting for me.

Why is this so?  I think it’s driven in part by ego and in part by the natural curiosity of the human brain.  We want to know if people are responding to us or thinking of us, and we are easily bored.  Rather than just take a walk down the street, why not check in on Facebook, too?  I suppose there’s no significant harm in missing the simple pleasures of a walk that you’ve taken many times — only to get another message that you’ve been invited to play some unknown Facebook game — but when referring to your handheld begins to interfere with actually living your life it seems like it’s time to reconsider what you’re doing.

I thought of this increasingly during our trip to New Orleans, when I encountered people who seemed to be focused on tapping things into their handheld to the exclusion of everything else — even if it meant stumbling into people on the street because they weren’t paying attention to where they were going.  The point was driven home when Richard, Russell, UJ and I were sitting on the second story balcony of a place on Frenchmen Street, enjoying a beer and the view, and we noticed a group of 10 or so young women who appeared to be part of a wedding party at the next table over.  Virtually all of them had their eyes locked on their phones and their thumbs flying.  They weren’t really in New Orleans, they were in cyberworld — so why physically be in New Orleans in the first place?

It was sad, and I’m embarrassed to say that I’m not much better.  I like blogging and feeling like I’m connected, but I need to make sure that I’ve worked out an appropriate balance between the real world and the virtual one.