Breaking news hit the airwaves in June that reflected how much the digital world is changing the way we live our lives.
In a first-of-its-kind story, Michelle Carter, 20 years old, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, after her former boyfriend, Conrad Roy, committed suicide in his pickup truck in Fairhaven, Massachusetts.
“Wait,” you say. “How could someone be guilty of manslaughter when the victim committed suicide?”
Michelle sent Conrad dozens of text messages, encouraging him to do it.
That and the final phone call made her liable, according to a Massachusetts court. Michelle Carter could face up to 20 years in prison.
How the Digital World Sneaks Up on Us
If you think what we do digitally isn’t authentic, or it doesn’t really matter, or there aren’t genuine consequences, think again. This sensational trial has raised some questions on whether words—especially digital ones—can make us liable for harming or even killing a person. Digital words offer a window into teen depression and suicide through texts and Facebook messaging. Already, the following effects have happened via social media platforms:
- Cyberbullying that leads to suicides.
- Facebook envy that leads to depression.
- Sexting that leads to “revenge porn.”
Much of the time, students don’t think about the long-term impact of their digital behavior. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can actually damage us —permanently. This story is vivid proof of that.
Like many of you, a story like this breaks my heart. We are flippant with our words, especially when we type them so fast. We often require our devices to “auto-correct” our sentences for our readers to make any sense of them. We type without much careful thought. We are emotional instead of logical, forgetting how we come across or how beneficial our words will be to a listener. We react impulsively, without processing the long-term impact on our receivers.
Both my father and my grandfather spoke of a day when words meant something to others. My grandparents could shake hands after making a verbal agreement on the price of a product, and they could depend on both parties to live up to their word. In those days, people seemed to be more aware of the impact of their words.
Today, not so much.
Yet, words still retain their power today. We just don’t act like it.
Leveraging Our Influence Well
I suggest you start a conversation with your students about this topic. In contrast to sending them a message on a screen, actually sit down with a community of students and process this story. Discuss what it means to our future. Then, talk over these questions:
1. In what ways do our digital words influence others?
2. How liable should people be for influencing someone else’s behavior?
3. If the basis of leadership is “influence,” and we all have influence, are we all leaders in one sense—either bad ones or good ones?
4. How are you using your digital presence intentionally?
5. What positive or negative outcomes occur after you’ve sent digital messages?
Each of us must remember the power of our words. Words can be sources of life or death; of pain or productivity; of destruction or progress. Why not close your student conversation by reminding them of these three truths about our words:
- They can be a GUIDE. Words can direct our influence in a positive way.
- They can be a GAUGE. Words can reveal how intentional we are as leaders.
- They can be a GUARD. Words can protect us and keep us on course.
Let’s utilize our words in purpose.
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