A death at Rutgers

Our view: Suicide following spying webcast underscores the need to teach college students about privacy and the responsibilities that come with the technology most take for granted

September 30, 2010

The transition to college can be an exceedingly difficult time for vulnerable teens, and that's one reason why more than 1,000 suicides occur on college campuses annually. But the death of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University, seems particularly nightmarish, given its technology-assisted circumstances — a moment of intimacy with another man secretly captured by a roommate's webcam and broadcast live on the Internet.

Mr. Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, one day after a sexual encounter was streamed live on the web, the second time this had happened in a matter of days. His roommate and a female classmate have been charged with invasion of privacy, but conduct they're charged with is far worse than some mere breach of personal affairs.

In recent years, many colleges and universities have tried to educate students about teen suicide, the second-leading cause of death among the age group. Suicide hotlines, counseling and educating young people about the behavioral "signals" of depression and suicide have become relatively commonplace practices on campuses.

But the rapid rise in communications technology and social media have raised the stakes, giving youngsters far greater power to embarrass, humiliate and harass than previous generations could have ever imagined. And few have been adequately prepared by parents, teachers, spiritual advisors or anyone else in their lives to handle this responsibility. Electronics stores don't check customers' maturity levels when they buy webcams and laptops.

Remarkably, Rutgers officials had already planned a "Project Civility" to educate students on how to conduct themselves on campus. One of the planned fall workshops even focuses on "uncivil gadgets" and the need to set parameters on their use.

But while freshmen orientation may contain advice on how to get along with roommates, it rarely if ever covers the topic of outing by webcam. It's one thing to tell a friend; it's quite another to broadcast it live to the world.

A Johns Hopkins University spokesman says he's unaware of any similar incident — an unauthorized dorm room webcast — ever being reported at the school. However, there has been at least one case where disciplinary action was taken against a Hopkins student for inappropriate use of social media, and incoming undergraduates are routinely warned not to reveal another student's confidential information, including sexuality.

Granted, some attention has been paid of late to bullying on the Internet, particularly by high school students. But college is different. The dormitory's forced intimacy with complete strangers — possibly from completely different cultural and religious backgrounds — thrown together as roommates requires a heightened vigilance. The emotional stress of students living away from home and family for the first time only adds to the potential danger.

The death of anyone so young is a tragedy. Friends and family members say Mr. Clementi was a fine young man and talented musician. But perhaps some purpose can be found in this loss if it serves as a warning to college administrators, students and others: The same technology that so assists education can also do great harm to young men and women ill-prepared for the potentially devastating impact of its misuse.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.