We all know there are times when hitting the “send” button gets us into trouble — posting a message on Twitter or Facebook instead of sending it as a direct message is the equivalent of pressing “reply all” on that E-mail that was intended only for your best girlfriend or significant other. As adults, we take the heat for the mistake and move on.
But what if it’s your teenage child who puts something out there in the Twitter-sphere that causes apoplexy with a school principal or, worse yet, the governor of your state?
That’s the situation Emma Sullivan, a high school senior in Prairie Village, Kansas, has found herself in. After participating in a youth government trip to Topeka, the capital of Kansas, she and some classmates who don’t exactly share Governor Sam Brownback’s politics started joking around, leading her to post the following tweet:
“Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot”
OK, not the most politically correct Twitter post or hashtag on the planet, but I’ve seen worse. So was this really horrible enough to draw the attention of a busy chief executive’s staff? Apparently, yes.
While Governor Brownback did address Sullivan and her classmates, Sullivan didn’t actually make any “mean comments” to him, nor did she tell him he sucked. The two didn’t exchange any words, but Sullivan’s tweet was a reflection of a later conversation she and some classmates were having about the school trip. But someone on the governor’s staff saw the tweet and called the school’s principal, who demanded that Sullivan write the governor an apology.
Too bad Sullivan doesn’t have a book to sell, because as a result of this dust-up, her Twitter followers jumped from 65 to close to 7,000 in less than a week.
But after thinking it over, Emma announced on Twitter that there will be no apology:
“I’ve decided not to write the letter but I hope this opens the door for average citizens to voice their opinion & to be heard! #goingstrong”
So what are the parenting lessons in this? If our kids are old enough to have Twitter and Facebook accounts, should we be talking with them about the potential landmines that await them when their words have unintended consequences? Sullivan is 18-years-old. So even though she’s still in high school, she is technically an adult, free to riff on how she feels about any political figure. But if comments arise out of a school-sponsored field trip, is there an obligation to talk with our kids about the fine line between snark and disrespect?
For kids younger than Sullivan, it’s clearly appropriate to have a conversation about thinking through the potential consequences of venting whatever you want, whenever you want in a space as public — and monitored — as Twitter. But it’s hard to demand that a high school senior apologize for a hashtag like “#blowsalot,” even if it isn’t the best way to engage in political discourse, when you’ve got GOP Presidential front-runner Mitt Romney defending political ads that he concedes are inaccurate because “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Teaching our kids about effective political dialogue online is one that obviously requires more than a tweet or two.
Would you make your teen apologize or encourage them to keep channeling their political snarkiness in 140 characters or less?