How One Online Mistake Can Ruin a Kid's Life
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Family & Fatherhood

How One Online Mistake Can Ruin a Kid's Life

Our son is a straight-A student with a bright future, and a simple social media slipup almost cost him everything

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The Arrow

Our son Jason* is 13. And, like any 13-year-old boy, he doesn't have much to say to us. 

Our conversations are pretty much limited to a) grunts and b) fights over homework, fights over curfews and fights over his smartphone. But while he can be a nightmare at home, reports from school have always been in the "pleasure to have in class" realm. (Sometimes we'll read glowing reports about how respectful Jason is to teachers and other students and think, Who is this kid?)

Which is why we were so shocked when, in early June, we got a call in the middle of the night from the summer camp that Jason's been attending for almost a decade. "We're unable to allow Jason to attend this summer," the camp director said. "We cannot condone threats of violence against members of the camp community."

"Threats of violence"? What?

When Jason got his first smartphone, we told him over and over again: If you put it on the internet, it lives forever. A dumb comment or offensive post can follow you around for the rest of your life. It's like how people our age came to understand email: You might want to respond to a troublesome colleague with something snarky, pointed or confrontational. But you don't, because you’re thoughtful and mature.

Teenagers aren't always thoughtful and mature. 

Mostly, Jason had been careful about what he posted online. But last year he started using Snapchat; its central promise is that the messages you post "disappear" after the recipient views them. Which is what Jason thought would happen when he and a few camp friends were having a bitch session about one of their counselors, and Jason, unbelievably, texted, "I'm going to put a plastic bag over his head while he’s sleeping."

Yes, we were horrified. But we also knew our son, and believed what he told us: He and his bunkmates were joking around, coming up with increasingly creative ways of imagining revenge on a counselor who, in real life, they all liked well enough. If he'd spoken it out loud in a room full of kids, Jason's comment would have just been dumb, hyperbolic teenspeak. But put it in writing in a group chat, and it becomes something else.

Another thing teens don't always understand: Not all of your "friends" are really friends. One of the kids on the group chat took a screenshot of Jason's comment, and it found its way to the head of the camp. This was just a week after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and everyone who worked with kids was understandably on edge. 

We begged and pleaded, but the camp was adamant: Jason was out, for good. That meant he'd never see his old bunk, or many of the friends he'd made over the last seven years, ever again. But then we started to think: Who else has a copy of this? Where will it go next? Jason's school has a strict no-bullying policy. Would he be suspended or kicked out? Would this impact his choice of colleges, of jobs? Would he wind up like that magazine editor who lost her job at age 27 because she sent anti-Asian messages and wore a Native American princess costume to a Halloween party when she was 17? 

So far, we've been lucky. Jason’s attending a new camp, and he loves it. The dumb mistake hasn’t resurfaced elsewhere. But the reality is that any kid could make a regrettable comment that one day might come back and undermine their entire lives. New social media apps come out all the time, asking kids to express themselves. One trendy new app among teens is BeReal, which prompts kids to snap images of themselves with only two minutes’ notice — in other words, without having a moment to think whether what they're posting might one day prove problematic. 

We can give our children all the warnings we want, but kids do dumb things. And we never know when those dumb things will return to haunt us. 

*Names have been changed because … yikes!

[This month, AARP is launching an initiative that focuses on the challenges of teens in 2022, with a special report in AARP Bulletin, stories throughout aarp.org, and a virtual summit with experts and teens on September 20th, hosted by Arrow editor-in-chief Stephen Perrine. For more stories, advice, and insights, and to join us for this important and informative round table, please register today.]

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