Like most parents, I have become adept at the rapid fire muting of the satellite radio when shepherding my children around in the car. Not only are the ads wildly inappropriate, but the news itself is not far behind. To wit, this morning when they caught a few sentences of Weinergate.
The natural impulse is to shield them from the squalor, to turn off the radio and change the subject. But this time I thought I owed it to them to try to explain what was going on. After all, both of them have iPods that take pictures and that can connect to wifi. They have gmail accounts. This activity is monitored of course, but would I really be able to catch every single misstep that happened at a sleepover or at camp before it became part of the flotsam and jetsam of the internet? Looking in the rearview mirror at them on this, their last day of school, they seemed so young–but the hard reality is that Anthony Weiner’s correspondents were not so very much older (that we know), and grew up in this information age in which it is not only commonplace to be in direct cyber-contact with a famous congressman, but also for that contact to become intimate in a very public and permanent way.
We talked about the pictures our family had taken this weekend at a horse show that had been posted online, and the people that had seen them and commented on them–a process they thoroughly enjoy. We discussed the things they circulate around their limited set of email correspondants, and how messages are forwarded but you still keep a copy and you can’t control what happens to what is sent on. Then we talked about Mr. Weiner, and how those pictures and messages can go from being fun and friendly into the realm of inappropriate. My son has been chastised for over-use of the term “weiner” as he pointed out this morning–in a funny way it helped us navigate the difficult territory but I needed them to understand this was not something to snicker at, but rather something serious that could touch their lives if they weren’t careful.
Anthony Weiner’s disgrace is a painful reminder to all of us of the fraility and blindness that appear to be an eternal componant of the human condition. But it might also serve as an opportunity to draw attention to their new manifestiation in our increasingly ubiquitous social media, and to help those coming of age in this environment–an opportunity he squandered yesterday. In my opinion, the Congressman’s greatest mistake in his press conference was referring to his interaction with the college student in Seattle as a “joke”–something lighthearted and that anyone might do. It was a shameful word choice that sends precisely the wrong message to others who might engage in such behavior, or who are already doing it. Taking explicit photos of yourself and posting them in any forum, be it public or private, is no prank gone awry. It is a dangerous and potentially damaging–even damning–thing to do.
Mr. Weiner’s name has been the source of endless jokes over the last ten days, and his activities certainly invite ridicule. But the seriousness of this type of behavior and its lasting ramifications are no joke.