The actions of Florida 11 year old “Jessi Slaughter” (Jessica Leonhardt) on YouTube as well as her father provide a case study on digital citizenship both sad and instructive to witness. The following seven minute segment from Good Morning America back in July 2010 provides a partial summary of the incident and situation.

The YouTube version above of this clip may be taken down at some point. The following ABC News website posts from July 22nd provide insights into the escalating series of events which led to this extreme and distressing situation:

  1. Viral Cyberbullying: Who’s to Blame for Jessi Slaughter’s Online Infamy
  2. ‘Jessi Slaughter’ Says Death Threats Won’t Stop Her From Posting Videos on the Internet
  3. Jessi Slaughter’s Cyber Bullying Nightmare
  4. Jessi Slaughter Breaks Down, Father Steps In

The most thorough summary of this incident I’ve encountered to date is published on Know Your Meme. The site describes itself as “Documenting Internet phenomena: viral videos, image macros, catchphrases, web celebs and more.” According to the site’s page about Jessi:

Jessica Leonhardt, also known as Jessi Slaughter and formerly as KerliGirl13 on YouTube, is an 11 year old girl and fan of the band Blood on the Dance Floor whose attention-seeking online behaviors caused her to become the target of a 4chan raid, resulting in a rage-fueled and ill-advised retort from her father that became the subject of masses of image macros and videos.

Here are a few reflections this situation with some possible “lessons learned” we can share with our students, children and grandchildren.

KIDS MOST AT RISK FACE-TO-FACE ARE MOST AT RISK ONLINE
This statement is a frequently shared refrain in many presentations today regarding cyberbullying and online safety: Research demonstrates (as do case studies like this one) that the children most “at risk” for a variety of reasons in face-to-face settings are most at risk when they go online. These children are more likely to make poor choices with bad consequences for themselves. It’s clear after watching only a few videos related to this situation that Jessica Leonhardt had and has some significant issues with anger. It’s also apparent that at least one of her parents (her father) was unaware of the need to protect his child by stopping her voluntary publication of angry videos which led to this hateful backlash by an online community of trolls.

Was this situation preventable? No one can answer that with certainty. What we CAN say with certainty is that the opportunity and capability to “publish at will” online via YouTube and other internet-based media channels is available to many, many children and students today regardless of geography or their home situation. As caring adults, it’s important for us to reach out to students who are “at risk” for a variety of reasons and work to connect them with supportive peers as well as adults who help them resolve their issues constructively. It’s tragic to see a situation like Jessica’s played out on the global stage, particularly when it appears the situation was self-invited (to a large degree) by Jessica’s actions as well as the actions / inactions of her parent(s).

VIRAL VIDEO SITUATIONS CAN QUICKLY SPIRAL OUT OF ANYONE’S DIRECT CONTROL
Jessica’s YouTube account, KerliGirl13, has been deleted. I’d guess because a police investigation is ongoing, the account details have been archived and turned over to authorities. One of my first thoughts after seeing some of these videos was, “Why didn’t her parent delete her account immediately as soon as this trouble started?” At this point, and doubtless this point was reached at a recent date shortly after the situation “exploded” online as well as in the mainstream media, MANY different YouTube users helped this situation spiral out of control by downloading their own versions of Jessica’s videos and re-uploading them to their own accounts. I saw and experienced how quickly this happens with regularity in Novemeber 2009 when my own daughter’s YouTube video response to President Obama went viral for a short time. Other people posted duplicates of her video to YouTube, in an attempt to capitalize on the viral interest on the video and topic and in some cases share advertising images/links with the global YouTube audience. As her parent who published this video, I had to formally submit several “takedown requests” to YouTube to stop this unauthorized “republication” of video, and thankfully what we experienced was NOT at the scale of this Jessi Slaughter case.

For more background on that situation with Sarah and her YouTube video about our President’s speech to US students in November 2009, see my post “Lucrative rewards of viral videos encourage parents to put their children on YouTube” from April 2010. The links are near the bottom of that post.

WORDS ARE POWERFUL, EVEN FROM AN 11 YEAR OLD
The words we say face-to-face and online can be powerful and can have lasting impact on others. The old saying, “Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt me” is a LIE. Words can hurt, and sadly they often do. People can be malicious and hateful, and this is particularly true online when a perception of anonymity and non-accountability exists. Sadly, Jessica Leonhardt has learned this critical lesson in a very difficult way. When you threaten to put a “glock” in someone’s mouth and “turn their brains into mushy” and put that video online, there are no guarantees but chances are high SOMEONE else is going to listen and hear your message. When you post content like this to a “tabloid [website] consisting of self-submitted stories” like Stickam, things can get ugly fast.

Words are powerful. We should use words with care. We need to help people of all ages understand the power of words, and the responsibilities we have as citizens in our face-to-face communities as well as online communities. These are conversations about citizenship, digital citizenship, ethics and respect. These are conversations we need to have in our homes, in our schools, in our churches, and in other contexts where we have opportunities to dialog and reflect about behavior.

THERE ARE GOOD REASONS FOR KIDS UNDER 13 TO NOT BE PUBLISHING INDEPENDENTLY TO YOUTUBE
According to the website “Unmasking the Digital Truth,” in the United States the “Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act” (COPPA) restricts the online collection of personal information by persons or entities under U.S. jurisdiction from children under 13 years of age. This means without parent permission, children under the age of 13 cannot obtain accounts on websites like YouTube. There are good reasons for this. Younger people often do not have the maturity and decision-making skills to wisely use websites like this which permit self-publication. We shouldn’t just criticize young children on this front, however, many older students as well as adults make very poor choices on a variety of interactive websites as well.

My personal opinion is children under age 13 should NOT be permitted to independently publish video online, without a parent’s watchful supervision, in any circumstance. I do not fault website owners for this lamentable situation involving Jessica Leonhardt. It’s OUR responsibility, as parents and responsible adults, to communicate and provide accountability which can prevent situations like this from spiraling out of control. Giving a young child access and permission (either tacit or explicit) to publish anything s/he wants with video to a global audience is irresponsible. Jessica’s parents have provided a case-study example for why this is true.

PARENT SUPERVISION OF ONLINE ACTIVITIES SOMETIMES ISN’T ENOUGH
Just saying, “It’s the parent’s responsibility to talk about digital citizenship” isn’t sufficient in our society today. Again, this situation provides a case in point. Jessica’s father made some bad choices. It was not constructive to record a video and publish it to YouTube shouting at and threatening the people online who were responding to his daughter’s provocations. It wasn’t right for other people to respond hatefully with comments, send death threats, publish Jessica’s real name and address online, order pizza’s to be delivered to her house as a means to harass her family, etc. Lots of bad choices on the part of many people characterize this situation. Just as multiple people made bad choices which contributed to these unfortunate exchanges, multiple people MIGHT have intervened at some point to prevent or ameliorate the damage which eventually took place. It takes a village to raise kids, and we all need to do what we can to discuss “digital citizenship” with people young and old in our spheres of influence.

WE NEED TO DISCUSS AND PRACTICE DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP
It’s not enough to talk about digital citizenship, we need to PRACTICE it together. The same thing goes for learning how to swim safely: A lesson at the chalkboard or whiteboard about safe swimming is not going to help others develop and refine their skills.

Swimming Lesson
Creative Commons License photo credit: edenpictures

People wanting to learn how to swim have to get in the water, and other experienced adults need to help supervise as well as facilitate the swimming instruction which takes place in the pool, lake, river or ocean.

This analogy applies to interactive, online environments. We need to discuss and facilitate student publication of text as well as media in online spaces, and PRACTICE this publication process together. We need to discuss the opportunities as well as pitfalls. Should you discuss the Jessi Slaughter YouTube case with pre-teens and/or teens in your classroom and home? Definitely. It’s often possible to find a silver lining or positive outcome to mistakes and even tragedies. Perhaps in this situation, we can constructively use the story of Jessi Slaughter, her dad and online cyberbullies to help others make BETTER choices and have MORE CONVERSATIONS about digital citizenship. Our takeaway should NOT be, “We’re keeping everyone in our school / home / community off the Internet.” That’s already the unfortunate conclusion and even POLICY of many school districts as well as parents when faced with mainstream media documentaries about Internet-using sexual predators. The world is STILL a dangerous place, and can often be a hostile, malicious environment. In this world, it’s our responsibility to prepare students to not just safely survive – but thrive. As Dr Kevin Leman asks parents, “Is your home a cage or a nest?” We need to ask the same question about our classrooms and our schools. Hopefully we’re providing supportive nests for our children and students, where they will learn to fly and one day safely leave the nest. It’s a scary prospect, but one we all must face. Digital citizenship needs to be not only something we TALK about, but something we DO together on a regular basis.

Robin Chicks
Creative Commons License photo credit: NomadicLass

Hat tip to Alec Couros for sharing a link about this situation via Twitter.

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  • Chan Bliss

    Wow! That whole thing makes me sad. The first thing that popped out to me was where the video was created. The first thing I tell parents who are having trouble with their children online is to take the computer out of the bedroom. I would suspect that the initial video would not have been posted or at least would not have been so raw if the computer was in the family room. An 11 year should not be doing anything on the computer that needs the privacy of their own room.
    Parents need to parent their children.

  • http://allanahk.edublogs.org/ AllanahK

    A horrible situation in every sort of way and a lesson to us all. I like the analogy- “Is your home a cage or a nest?”

    We have to model the behaviour we want from our children.

    I hope she is able to get the help that you can see she needs to be able to put this and her other issues behind her.

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  • http://www.linnettstudios.com Patti

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Wesley for being the one to finally convey this stance.

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