Two of my favorite commentarians have asked me about my opinion on the Tomas Fletcher situation. I have now heard about this from four different sources and seen the news report on it.
The story, from what I understand, is that Tomas added some students as friends on facebook. At least one of these students looked at Tomas’ pictures and found some pictures that were in questionable taste. This sparked an overreaction and was seized upon by Maestro – which, as far as I can tell, is the Fox News of Georgia – and used to smear TLG as a whole. This is the same “news” organization that featured my blog in a TLG smear piece, without attempting to contact me or even bothering to get any of the facts right, for instance, where I live or who I teach. Tomas has now been – in my opinion, unfairly – accused of a number of things and called a number of names.
So look. Obviously the evidence does not support the claim that Tomas is gay, a pedophile, or a pornographer. There are probably millions of pictures on the internet of people who were just fucking around and ended up in apparently compromising positions. And you’d think that in a culture like Georgia’s, where straight men regularly walk around with their arms around each other, people wouldn’t be so quick to assume someone was gay because of a possibly homoerotic photo. And even if Tomas was gay, which rumor suggests he is not, this is the 21st century, and people who think being gay is bad need to get with the fucking program.
Second of all, pornography is expressly forbidden by facebook’s terms of service. I’m not saying that pornographic stuff can never slip through, but from what I understand facebook is fairly good at cracking down on that sort of thing. So it’s almost certain that what we are dealing with in these photos is some kind of simulated, implied, or satirized sex act, and not an actual sex act. Now – is that pornography? I don’t care to speculate since the definition of “pornography” is famously vague and subjective. I can, however, remind you that this is the kind of music video that can be seen on Georgian television that I happen to know Georgian children are watching. If that isn’t pornography, then neither is whatever Tomas had on facebook.
Finally, the most damaging and relevant charge, which is the implication that Tomas is somehow behaving inappropriately towards children. This is where, I have to admit, things get a little murky, and thus where the meat of my analysis will lie.
Obviously, this is not a case of pedophilia. Tomas was not deliberately showing gay porn to children to satisfy any kind of prurient interest. However, there are certain valid concerns that arise from the fact that children (of what age, we do not know) saw something of a sexual nature that they may or may not have understood, due to a set of questionable decisions made by the adults in their life, and what they saw could potentially make them confused or uncomfortable and interfere with the learning environment.
Now, first of all, I will say that the first responsibility to protect children from the internet lies with parents. The amount of the internet that is potentially harmful or disturbing to children is staggering. I’m not just talking about porn – of which there is a huge, huge, huge amount on the internet. You can go on the internet and watch videos of people being beheaded. You can go on the internet and watch videos of people doing dangerous, stupid, disgusting, and/or unsanitary things. You can go on the internet and see graphic pictures of people with various medical and psychological conditions that can give nightmares to full-grown adults. So if you’re a parent, and you are not monitoring your children’s internet usage, then for all you know they’re on 4chan, or worse, the even seedier Russian equivalent that I imagine must somehow exist. And that’s not even counting the actual pedophiles who are actually trying to get children to give out their location and/or contact info so they can be abducted.
So look, parents – if you let your kids have unsupervised and unrestricted internet access, you basically give up your right to bitch and moan about what they see. And I can almost guarantee that by the time they’re 13 or 14 they’ve figured out how to find any kind of porn they want, view it, and delete their browsing history and temporary files so you can’t find out what they were doing. And the other thing about the internet is that you don’t even have to look for sexual, disgusting, and/or dangerous shit online – it will find you. Tuning it out is a survival skill that every internet user has to develop.
So then there’s the next question: when is it okay for a child to have facebook, or some other public online presence? If you understand that facebook was started for college kids in the US, you understand that one of the sine qua nons of facebook is pictures of college kids in the US doing stupid shit, generally while drunk out of their fucking minds. I’m probably lucky that the bulk of my wild college times happened before facebook, although you can probably find pictures on the internet of me dressed up to attend the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which might lead you to the erroneous conclusion that I am a BDSM fetishist – not that there is anything wrong with people who are. In any case, the point is, again, if you are letting your kid use facebook you should understand what that entails. They’ll probably be asked to allow various apps that violate privacy, they’ll probably see pictures of people doing weird stuff, and they’ll probably end up with a wider network of connections than you might be comfortable with.
To sum up: parents, pay some fucking attention to your children. There is an internet now. Just having them be at home is no longer a reasonable way to shield them from the real world.
And this, finally, brings us back around to the question of adults friending children, and specifically, of teachers friending their students. I’m going to go ahead and say that in the case of adults and minors, I do not particularly recommend it.
I’ve become facebook friends with at least one of my college professors. I see no problem with this, since students befriending professors and professors mentoring students is an age-old practice. I have also befriended some of my students at the Police Academy, because they are all adults.
However, when it comes to students who are minors, being friendly is fine, but the kind of interaction that goes on on facebook basically entails an integration of an adult’s social life with a child’s social life. A teacher is a role model for their students, and facebook is a place where people are generally not presented in a professional or ideal light. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with adults having the kind of fun that they have in their facebook photos – just that there are certain types of activities that are better off being done by people with more judgment than schoolchildren.
I have a friend who is about seven years younger than me. We met on the internet when she was thirteen or fourteen, and I admit that at the time I was hesitant to discuss certain topics with her because of her age. Now that I am twenty-nine, I can’t even imagine becoming internet friends with someone who is thirteen or fourteen. I mean, I know that in the US, there are lots of kids who have tried drugs and sex and alcohol and other adult things by the time they are thirteen, and I know that there are plenty more who actually are mature enough to talk about adult things – but still, when I am on the internet, I do not want to have to censor myself and gear my photos, conversations, and other activities to a family audience. I feel bad enough cursing on my facebook status updates knowing that my parents might be reading them – I can’t imagine posting a picture of, for example, myself spinning fire, knowing that some tween might see it and try it at home and end up with third degree burns or worse.
I also know that morals and values are different here in Georgia than in the US. For instance, I’m told Georgians are allowed and/or encouraged to start drinking much earlier than Americans are. It might be socially acceptable for a student to see their teacher drinking alcohol. On the other hand, a lot of my facebook photos are of me hugging, kissing, cuddling, and/or massaging various female friends or girlfriends, and I’m not so sure that those kinds of things would be socially acceptable for kids to see here.
I guess the point is that there’s no telling what will rub a child’s parents the wrong way, or what might influence a child’s behavior, and so I’d rather just not take the risk. I’d rather not have to worry about filtering all of my photos and notes and status updates so that a certain subset of my facebook friends can’t see them, and I’d rather not have to consider what might or might not be offensive or socially unacceptable to various particular individuals. I’d also rather not have my image as the teacher – a figure that should be respected – tarnished by something I said or did among my peers. And there’s no way to tell how children will judge you based on what you do or say online. Basically, aside from the age issue, I also prefer to keep my personal and professional life separate.
I’m not saying no one should friend their students on facebook. I guess I’m just saying that if you do, you have to be prepared to take responsibility for what those children end up seeing on your facebook. Tomas Fletcher was careless, and maybe he’s taking more heat for it than he deserves (or maybe not, since it seems TLG is backing him), but that’s exactly why you have to be careful with what you share online and who you share it with, and that’s why I personally wouldn’t recommend friending students, especially young ones, and *especially* when they come from a culture whose nuances you may not entirely grasp. And if you do friend your students on facebook, you better make damned sure your facebook has been properly child-proofed.
And finally, the video. What’s with these guys?