Don't Trip Over Your Digital Footprint

Whether you're a pop icon or a high school teenager, no one's immune from public scrutiny. A status update or 140 characters can be enough to seriously offend others, and ruin your reputation. Host Michel Martin takes a look at the pitfalls of social media with blogger Latoya Peterson, and high school "Twitter Principal" Eric Sheninger.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we want to take a look at this past weekend's G8 summit. We'll talk about what Europe's economic challenges could mean for the U.S. We'll have that conversation in a few minutes. But first, we want to turn our attention to social media. Facebook has been in the news, of course, because of last week's stock offering, but apart from that, Facebook has become a big part of people's everyday lives.

It boasts 900 million users. If it were a nation, it would be the third most populous in the world. And after just five years in business, Twitter has approximately 175 million users. But just because more people are using social media, it doesn't mean they understand its power. Many users are still learning the hard way how harmful it can be when millions of people can read and judge those status updates and 140 character messages.

We thought since summer is around the corner and people might be tempted to post pics of their latest beer bashes, that this might be a good time to talk about the potential pitfalls of social media. We've called Latoya Peterson. She is the editor of the blog Racialicious. Also with us, Eric Sheninger. He is the principal of New Milford High School in New Jersey. He's known as the Twitter principal because he is active on almost every social media network.

He also takes a hands-on approach to educating his students about the advantages and downsides of social media. He's at school, so if you hear some school noises in the background, you'll know what that is. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

LATOYA PETERSON: Thanks for having us.

ERIC SHENINGER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Latoya, let me start with you. Twitter, of course, is a way for figures, public figures, to develop a following, but it just seems like every week we're reading about somebody stubbing his or her toe on this. I mean, of course Spike Lee had to apologize for tweeting an incorrect address for George Zimmerman, who of course is the shooter in the Trayvon Martin case.

And who could forget Anthony Weiner, a member of Congress having to resign because of a careless Twitter picture of something he should not have tweeted a picture about. So I'm just wondering what is it, do you think, about Twitter that makes people forget that the world is reading it?

PETERSON: Well, you know, my friend Dana Boyd, who is a researcher and she does a lot of work with researching teens, has a great idea on this, which is that, you know, Twitter and social media in general is kind of blurring the boundary between like this private intimate space and public space, right?

And so for most people, most people who are not in the public eye, we have this idea that we are anonymous in our daily lives. Like who really cares about your status updates except for the people who know you and people who love you? For celebrities, that becomes even more work because they know they're talking to their fans and yet they're creating this intimate space with their fans.

So you have people like Kim Kardashian tweeting, you know, what should I wear today? You know, how should I style my hair? And it becomes this very affirming relationship and at the same time it makes people feel very safe and so they start to drop their guard and say things that they really shouldn't.

MARTIN: And in a way you hear that - people say they forget that the cameras are there.

PETERSON: Exactly.

MARTIN: That kind of thing, although I don't know how you could forget that these giant microphones are in your face.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: It's just - you know, we are on the air, folks. We are actually talking to people, millions of people. So, you know, Eric, we know that Twitter and Facebook can actually make grown people act like teenagers, like Latoya was just saying. You actually work with teenagers as the principal at New Milford High. When did you get the idea that it was important to start incorporating social media into the educational experience?

SHENINGER: Well, I think it began with - when I sort of stuck my toe into the water and quickly realized that, you know, social media could be a valuable tool for teaching and learning. You know, I was the principal that blocked, banned, prohibited, felt that social media had absolutely no place in education.

But once I began to use it and I saw the many merits associated with these forms of technology, as I became more knowledgeable and also started to hear and see all of the negative stories involving social media and - whether it be student behavior or staff behavior, I decided that, you know what, I'm in the business of education.

I need to work with my students and teach them how to be digitally responsible. I think across the country, schools, you know, fail to educate students on appropriate use of social media. Primarily they feel that, you know, it has no place in school so why bother, but you know what? It's not going away.

And what we've started to do is - I actually lead these seminars myself. We bring every single student into the auditorium. We talk about cyber-bullying. We talk about digital footprints. We talk about the negative impact that tweets or Facebook posts can eventually have in terms of getting into college or getting a job.

And we actually then share some concrete examples of situations that we've dealt with here with our students and sort of like put the students on the right path. And the end result has been a dramatic decrease in cyber-bullying. Students are actually taking down their Facebook pages. They're reporting now to us, to school officials across the district, acts of cyber bullying that they see.

And they understand that, you know what, they need to be digitally responsible in this age because once it's posted out there, it doesn't go away.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the advantages and pitfalls of social media with Principal Eric Sheninger of New Milford High School in New Jersey. He's been called the Twitter principal because he's active on social media and also teaches about this. And also blogger Latoya Peterson.

You know, we've talked a lot about the cyber-bullying with kids, but Latoya, what about the cyber-bullying among adults? I mean we've actually had experiences on this program where people - even in advance of an interview airing with someone, someone's decided that they're not going to like in advance what that person is saying and then they start attacking this person via social media.

And, you know, you say to yourself - you can't control that. I mean there's nothing you can do about that. And I'm just wondering, particularly because you have a blog that addresses sensitive issues, which race is one - are there some guidelines that you employ to help make it the kind of safe space that people would like to have so they can talk about things that are challenging? Or can you just - just have to tell people to toughen up?

PETERSON: Well, it's challenging because you don't want to tell people to toughen up because it's harassment, right? Like the same things that happen offline with slam books and gossip circles, it just migrates online and it's able to be, you know, the volume is just so much higher when it's online. Right?

If you make a mistake online, instead of having, like, the five people in front of you like, ooh, I hated that, now you suddenly have 500 people that might've come from Tumblr or Twitter or whatever and they're all - it feels like kind of a wave that's crashing.

But what we've tried to do to mitigate it, particularly when talking about subjects like race or gender or structural inequality at large, is really, one, to set the tone for the place and say this is what's acceptable and this is what's not. Right? So we have all these policies against personal attacks.

We have policies surrounding identity. We have policies about how we talk about issues. And we tell people that do not necessarily abide by those policies to leave. Because that's a problem. Not everyone is invested in having good conversations online. Some people are invested in having these fights or stirring up this drama and they're not welcome in our space.

MARTIN: So you kick them out.

PETERSON: We do.

MARTIN: If you see these - language that you feel crosses the line, you...

PETERSON: Right. We don't approve the comment.

Occasionally we'll engage with things that are problematic, if we feel like, you know, so if there's like trans issues, right - they're not necessarily well-known. People might not know when they're making a mistake, and so we try to engage if that person becomes defensive or becomes aggressive.

MARTIN: And what do you say to people who feel that you're censoring them?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PETERSON: Censorship is something that's really misunderstood in our society, right? If the government was censoring you, that's one thing, but I'm on a private website and you could form your own private website and say whatever you feel to do, but you're not going to do that on the property that I have to maintain and I have to pay for.

MARTIN: Eric, do you feel that the students are leading or following in this? For example, we've seen Twitter fights among celebrities, like, you know, Rihanna, for example.

PETERSON: Rihanna and Karrueche Tran, yeah.

MARTIN: Yes. And her ex-boyfriend and his new inamorata have gotten into some Twitter fights. Do you feel that the students look at that and think I should do that too? Or do you think - how do you think that interplay of celebrity behavior affects the student behavior?

SHENINGER: I definitely think it is playing a prominent role in students' online behavior because schools have not been proactive enough to sit their kids down and teach them about, you know, Internet etiquette, the difference between right or wrong, and the potential negative impact this could have on their lives down the road.

You know, for us what we've done is, you know, being that we're involved as a school and as educators in virtually every social media space, some things have been brought to our attention. And there was one case early this year where some students started a hash tag called #NMProblems. And it was started by alumni, but some current students chimed in and they said some very derogatory remarks in regards to some present teachers.

And you know what? Immediately, when it came to our attention, we addressed it. We brought those students in, but most importantly, we brought their parents in and we let them read their public tweets before we brought the kids in. And that had such an impact on the discussions that we had with these kids because, when the parents saw, firsthand, what was being put online, they were mortified.

And, since that one point in time this year when we addressed it, we've had no other issues on Twitter throughout the entire year, because, A, the students now know, you know, that it's wrong and, B, they understand that we're out there - not policing, but making sure that they're making wise decisions in terms of the content that they are posting.

MARTIN: So good piece of advice - or why don't you leave us, Principal Sheninger, if you would, with one brief piece of advice as many students - you know, they head off into the summer and, oftentimes, they're not as closely supervised as they are during the school year. Best piece of advice for parents and for students?

SHENINGER: My piece of advice is, even though you might think it's innocent, it's not that big of a deal, that it's your private and personal information, once you put it on a social media site, it is there for anyone to, not only access, but they can then share that information, they can repurpose it, they can adapt it. Whether it's pictures, videos or your thoughts, it could lead to a potential disaster down the road where you're looking to get into that great college or looking for a job. Once it's archived, it can be accessed and, as we tell our students, that's your digital footprint. Do you want your digital footprint to be positive or negative going forward?

MARTIN: Latoya, a final word from you, 30 seconds or so. What's your final best piece of advice?

PETERSON: Definitely realize that you're always on the record and, if you're really interested in privacy and online policing, check out places like EFF, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and they tell you kind of ways in which you can look at how people are monitoring you and how you can reduce your digital footprint.

MARTIN: Latoya Peterson is the editor of the blog, Racialicious. She was kind enough to join us at our NPR studios in Washington, D.C. Eric Sheninger is the principal of New Milford High School in New Jersey. He was nice enough to take a short break and find some quiet corner at school to talk with us.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

PETERSON: Thank you, Michel.

SHENINGER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, is Korean food in while cupcakes are out? The Washington Post food critic, Tom Sietsema, joins us to share what he's learned about dining trends this spring. Are we eating more healthy options and how are restaurants dealing with the economy? We'll talk about all this and more just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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