Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

April 11, 2013

Restraint needed in this high-tech world of instant communication


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — There were days during my teaching career when I sympathized with the 1930s police trying to enforce Prohibition. Alcohol had been declared illegal, but a big segment of America’s population didn’t agree with the law. They made their own booze, smuggled it, and drank it in secret clubs. The general population was determined not to obey the law.

Move forward into the 21st century and envision a high school in Virginia. Like many schools, my school had a ban on cell phones. Students were to leave them off and in their lockers. That sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?

We might as well have tried prohibiting right hands. To my students, their cell phones were as essential as water and air. Requests from even the principal to hand over phones were met with fierce resistance. The situation was even worse when parents wouldn’t back us up. They were determined to stay in touch with their kids no matter what our policies said.

I would try to present a lesson only to see kids texting or playing games, and instructions to stop met with resistance. As far as they were concerned, maintaining instantaneous contact with their friends was a right enshrined somewhere in the U.S. Constitution. Their cell phone culture demanded instant replies and the instant posting of any rumor, image or thought; in fact, I think the words “secret” and “confidential” had disappeared from their vocabularies.

I believe this “must share everything” culture has always been in our schools. When I was attending junior high and high school in South Charleston, cell phones and the Internet were only science fiction. This didn’t stop students, particularly the girls, from constantly socializing in class. One problem we had at my high school were letters. Girls would sit in class and write long, involved letters to each other and deliver them while in the halls or at lunch.

There were times when the girls would harass each other with notes. Arguments about boys and perceived slights quickly became public knowledge. Arguments between guys were usually handled face to face.

My generation had the inclination to share news and arguments instantly, but they lacked the means to do so. Cell phones, the Internet and social media websites changed all that. In West Virginia, the Legislature is moving to crack down on juveniles who engage in “sexting,” which means sending sexually explicit photos to each other. I guess it’s all part of that “must share” culture I’m talking about. My generation would have embraced cell phone tech with both arms.

Rumors spread quickly during my teen years, but now they move as fast as eager little fingers can type them out. Worse, they can spread these rumors anonymously. In the past, you risked being seen and overheard when you talked or left a note somewhere, but now you can adopt a name and make up news to your heart’s content.

It’s hard to make some people understand that you can’t trust everything you see and read on the Internet. You have to view and consume with a critical eye.

For instance, I once did a story about explosives and the websites offering instructions for making bombs. An agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms told me that you can’t trust these sites because anybody can proclaim his or herself an expert. A guy who likes explosions could dub himself “Uncle Fester” after the dynamite-loving Addams Family character and offer you a recipe that would get you killed. Fortunately, my students were much more interested in gossip and celebrity news than bombs.

I’m not against the Internet and cell phones. I can remember years ago having to find a pay phone in the middle of the night after attending a press conference in Beckley with the Rev. Jessie Jackson. A cell phone would have made life easier at that moment. I also remember the time when finding a telephone number or checking a reference meant digging out reference books and phone books. Now I just do a quick Internet search and I have what I need.

I guess all we really need in this cell phone and Internet age is some restraint. The old adage “stop and think” is a good one to remember. Words and pictures posted on the Internet are like sky rockets. Once you launch it, you can’t put it back on the ground. It’s gone forever and you can’t take back that moment you lit the fuse. The same applies to cell phones.

Cell phones in schools could be all right if the students followed some common-sense rules and kept their phones put away while class is in session. Parents could help by going through their school’s office first instead of calling their kids directly. Doing this isn’t always a good thing.

For instance, one time a girl flossed her teeth in my class and I told her to stop. She got irate and texted her mother.

What was her mother’s reply? “You did what in class?” In the heat of the moment, the girl didn’t stop to think that her mother was a teacher at the same school. I know a lesson in the social etiquette of oral hygiene was on the family agenda that evening.

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.