‘You’re a trending topic’: A teen’s digital nightmare
(CNN) — November 23 was a game day. Not even a real game day — an exhibition game day. Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington girls’ basketball team was among Oklahoma’s best and summoning a burst of enthusiasm for a certain win in a meaningless match was unlikely.
Inside the gym at nearby Sand Springs High School, the expected rout went ahead as planned, with Tiffany — whose real identity we are keeping anonymous — doing her part by contributing a handful of buckets. Track and field, in which she was a state runner-up in the 4×200 meter relay, is her true passion. But Tiffany’s height and ability had made her a valuable low post player since she first pulled on her No. 2 jersey in middle school.
She was pulling that jersey off, alone in a corner of the visitor’s locker room, when she heard the first burst of laughter.
“Granny panties.” That’s all it took. One shout, a point and a locker room full of escalating teenage giggles and taunts. Tiffany never really thought there was anything remarkable about her underwear, but at this moment, that’s what somehow shoved the normally reserved sophomore into the center of attention.
“I was pointed out by my teammate, for the whole team to look at me,” Tiffany recalls. “The trainer just ran over there and was like, ‘Oh my gosh! We have to take a picture of this, we gotta get this!’”
“My underwear, they were basically making fun of my underwear.” And then they were holding out their cell phones, aiming them at the semi-undressed then-16-year-old. A phone would never fit into even the broadest definition of a weapon, but consider the damage they’re now capable of and it can become, at the least, a very threatening object.
“They asked me if they can put it on Twitter and I said ‘No.’ And I didn’t want them to take the picture at all.” But that didn’t matter.
Moments later, Tiffany found herself being restrained by one of her few close friends on the team. “My teammate held me down. The one who spotted me out, who noticed me. I was basically telling them ‘No, stop!’ repeatedly, begging them not to. Like ‘Don’t take the picture.’”
The strange episode played out slowly for the star sprinter, who says she wondered in disbelief, “Oh my gosh, is this really happening? Are they really about to do this?”
“They held me down. Laughing. One of them snapped the picture. I wasn’t shouting. They were laughing so I was just trying to get them off me.”
By the time she did, the image was locked away in the camera of the team trainer, also a student. But for the moment, that was still the only place the humiliating photo of Tiffany in her underwear existed.
Tiffany was one of the last to leave the locker room. After she finished getting changed, she caught up to her teammates as everyone was getting ready to hit the road outside. A group of the girls pleaded with her to let them post the humiliating photo on Twitter.
“I said ‘No’. Some of the girls were saying, ‘Don’t put it on there!’ and some were like, ‘Put it on there!’ The trainer told me, to my face, ‘I’m not gonna put it on there. I’m not gonna do it. Chill. Relax.’ But I know she didn’t delete that picture.”
Driving home after the game, her mind not at all occupied with anything having to do with basketball, Tiffany was feeling better because the trainer said she “wasn’t gonna put it on there.”
“But in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. What if she puts it on there?’”
Brave New World
Here’s an easy challenge: Think of a dreadful day in high school.
That time you accidentally walked into the wrong bathroom? The day you stood at the blackboard, humiliated for 10 minutes, because your math teacher wouldn’t let you sit back down until you wrote the correct answer?
Worse, maybe it was the day you were jumped in the hallway, shoved against a wall and cringed in heart-racing fear before landing on the wrong end of a blur of insults, kicks and punches.
We all had bad days in high school. It’s a common denominator of our adolescence shared across generations. But those days were never overshared. Awful as they were, they were ours. Usually. The collateral embarrassment of walking around with your zipper down or being mocked by the jocks for your outfit was typically limited to those present and whoever caught word through the usual well-oiled gossip channels.
But not anymore. According to a survey of about 500 teenagers by Y Combinator partner Garry Tan, 68% of those surveyed are on Facebook, 61% use Tumblr and more than 20% are on Twitter and Instagram. Now any private humiliation can be considerably amplified, served up to a public audience. A public and unforgiving audience.
This is why the world now associates “Steubenville, Ohio,” with sexual assault. A terrifying, criminal — but inherently private — incident would have remained relatively isolated within the confines of that community were it not for the shocking decision to share images of a passed-out teenager being raped on social media. Now, that teen must deal not only with what happened to her, but the fact that it was launched onto laptops and spread virally.
To a considerably lesser extent, the same sort of thing is happening in schools and communities across the country. Those jocks who laughed at your too-short pants and Christmas sweater? They just posted a photo of your outfit on Facebook so their combined 3,000 friends can make fun of you, too. Someone else just put the picture on Twitter, which, because content there is much more publicly accessible, means some kid nobody knows who lives 1,000 miles away just retweeted it — and your name — to his 400 followers. Keep an eye on your inbox and Wall; it’s about to get brutal.
Social media is the new permanent record. Those two dreaded words traditionally refer to the less flattering elements of your personal history, slipped into a manila folder, privately stashed away in the principal’s beige, metal filing cabinet. Now it’s every offensive tweet, racy post or God-I-hope-my-mom/teacher/coach/college admissions officer-never-sees-this text you have ever sent or received. There is no manila folder and, wow, there is breathtakingly nothing private about it.
How much greater of a degree of difficulty does all this then slap on surviving the teenage crucible for today’s students versus previous generations?
Well, consider how some of the more famous moments of some classic ’80s high school films might have played out if updated to include today’s technologies.
How different would things have been for Molly Ringwald’s Samantha Baker in “Sixteen Candles” if all those nerds in the bathroom were holding up smartphones when Anthony Michael Hall triumphantly displayed her underwear? (#SamsUnderwear ?)
What if someone spotted Ferris at Wrigley Field and tweeted a pic to Ed Rooney?
What if Judge Reinhold had an iPhone and Facebook account when Phoebe Cates emerged from that pool?
And the consequences of these decisions? Wait … consequences?? What are you talking about, “consequences”? This stuff is funny! LOL guys!! Share, post, retweet, send!
The “what ifs” have now all become a reality. This is growing up now. Welcome to Generation Overshare.
Tiffany is a member of Generation Overshare, though really more by age than by practice. She has a Twitter account, she’s on Facebook. But social media was never really more than background noise for the busy high school junior whose time was filled with a challenging course load including AP World History, her school’s track and basketball teams, and frequent church events with the congregation founded by her grandparents.
“People get on their phones daily, every other minute in class just to check their Twitter and Instagram,” says Tiffany.
But for a student who describes herself as occasionally “isolated,” classmates’ digital diets didn’t hold much fascination and were never much of a concern — until it was her life somehow being served up on a virtual platter.
Tiffany’s description of her Tulsa, Oklahoma, school as a place where the latest gossip or Snapchats pulse through classrooms with the speed of a finger tap probably sounds unremarkable to teens and parents around the country.
Nor is it remarkable that Tiffany would be caught in their social media crossfire. But as detached as her online life was from other students’, her mere presence — any student’s mere presence — inside the school’s walls made her a potential victim.
By the time she got home from the basketball game on that clear, chilly Sooner State evening, that’s exactly what had happened.
“You need to look on the Internet. You’re a Trending Topic.” The phone call that night from a friend was the gut punch that informed Tiffany that the trainer didn’t keep her word.
The humiliating photo had landed on Twitter and was quickly swept into the social media site’s current of retweets, inviting the public Internet into that private high school locker room. In a moment, its walls of privacy destroyed by a carelessly uploaded jpeg file. The original, shameful event was bad enough with only maybe a dozen witnesses. But now?
“I was crushed. I was terrified. I was really scared,” Tiffany says. “I immediately started crying.”
She called her parents and hurriedly began explaining what had happened. “She was frantic,” her mom says. Once they understood the complete story, Dwayne and DeAnn Cooks offered Tiffany words of support and reminders of their faith. DeAnn also phoned the basketball coach.
But Dwayne says that they, like their daughter, were scared, “because I guess, you know, we kind of knew what she was going to have to go through in the hallways.”
The hallways. Of course. Because as any member of Generation Overshare can tell you, cyberbullying is only part of the problem. It’s when it manifests itself back in the real world that the shattering consequences of online actions become absolutely inescapable.
Tiffany says she tried to just “keep my head down” the next few weeks, but laying low wasn’t working. At all. Students ran up to her with the photo on their phones and start laughing in her face while she tried getting to class. Others kept hounding her to go shop at some new stores, and she heard “granny panties” yelled at her more than a few times. The only time she was left alone was at lunch.
“She would sit down in the lunchroom to eat by herself because no one would sit with her,” her mom recalls. “They threw food on her clothes. She had food stains and everything like that — barbecue, chicken wings and all these things they threw on her.”
Tiffany and her parents reached out to school administrators, explaining what was happening and hoping they could intervene. But even worse than what her dad described as the school’s refusal to accept accountability was the fact that bringing the matter to their attention in the first place now made Tiffany a target all over again. See, now she was a snitch, in the eyes of the bizarro high school justice system which turns victims into troublemakers.
“We told, so they started calling her a ‘snitch’ and then everyone wanted to fight her,” said DeAnn, who works at a college preparatory school just minutes from Booker T. and began stopping by the school on her lunch break to check up on Tiffany. “You know, she’s crying, several different times. It was really, really bad. I went over there several times a day, every single day.”
“That B better not have messed up my scholarship!” raged one tweet her dad recalls from teammates angered by his daughter’s “snitching.”
Watching her own teammates turn against her hurt, but not as much as the punch that found Tiffany’s face a few days later in the school cafeteria.
Or the time her mom remembers when “they stopped Tiffany in the hallway and a group of girls crowded around her. They chased her down the hallway and started slamming her head into the locker.”
“It was really, really bad, and she was scared for her life.”
DeAnn Cooks says she wrote a letter to the school and spoke in person with one administrator about her daughter’s torment. “This fight happened in the middle of the hallway, in the middle of the day. The only thing that broke the fight up were some seniors that were standing around and finally got tired of watching the fight. And it was posted on YouTube.”
Tiffany wrote a letter, too. It contained a much different message.
“I wrote a letter to my dean at school, I kind of felt like I couldn’t go on in life. I couldn’t make it. I didn’t know who else to turn to, like I felt like nobody was ‘there’ at the school. I wrote her a letter and told her it was almost like I wanted to commit suicide.”
A Lasting Image
Bake sales. Delivering food for the homeless. Shoe drives, youth groups and the church choir. Tiffany has a deep connection with her family and the community church they built. These activities are what have filled her days “since birth,” her dad says with a laugh. Her mom adds simply, “We’re Christian people.”
The teenager talks easily about her home life, and her grandparents come up almost as often as her parents in the anecdotes she shares. The importance of her family is clear — in an encouraging and respectful sort of manner we sometimes disqualify teens from needing to possess. It’s the kind of upbringing and supportive family that parents hope perfectly outfits their children to withstand as much of the pain the world is capable of inflicting as possible. Tiffany had those advantages.
So it took a lot for her to go from there to here.
Of course it also took very little; just that single photo.
Thoughts of suicide? As soon as DeAnn found out, she arranged counseling for her daughter at their church, where her grandparents are both pastors. Tiffany also turned to familiar allies for help. “It was easier to lean on Jesus and go back and talk to (my family) about the importance to stay in school and to make it.”
But it’s tough to move past the pain when the sticky nature of the Internet won’t let it go away. The photo resurfaced during Thanksgiving break, Tiffany says, “because when you’re on break, you have nothing to do but get on social sites and talk.”
This reminder of the inescapable fact that The Internet Is Forever left Tiffany’s parents feeling “totally powerless,” as her father put it. “As a parent you don’t know what to do, don’t know where to turn, you’re totally helpless.”
Tiffany’s family eventually decided to turn to the courts. They sued Twitter for negligence at the end of 2012, alleging it failed to “reasonably monitor and remove the photograph” of their daughter. They also filed lawsuits at that time against Tulsa Independent School District No. 1, as well as two students and their parents.
The Cooks’ petition against the district claims they did not “reasonably respond to her complaints of bullying and verbal and physical assaults” and did not “reasonably protect (Tiffany) from being photographed while undressing at a school sponsored event.” The family seeks $75,000 for “medical expenses, mental and physical pain and suffering, emotional distress and other actual damages.”
The school district denied every allegation as well as any liability in documents filed to Tulsa County Court. Attorneys for Tulsa Public Schools noted that the locker room incident was “appropriately addressed by the School District” after the complaint was made. Multiple calls made by HLN to the attorneys representing the district were not returned.
The Cooks accused the two students of intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil assault, civil battery and invasion of privacy. The families of both students have denied all of the accusations, according to documents submitted to the court. Attorney Mark Smiling represents one of the students’ families and declined to comment on the case to HLN other than to say he doesn’t expect it to be heard until next spring.
While those cases are still pending, the Cooks’ claim against Twitter was dropped on May 6.
Of course by then, the photo of Tiffany in her underwear had migrated onto Instagram, amplifying the social reach of an incident she was hoping would just fade away already.
“Had it just stayed in the locker room or whatever, then of course that’s a horrific thing to deal with. But they would have dealt with it just within the team,” DeAnn begins, outlining the difference between teenage traumas in the pre-Internet age versus now.
“At this point, when it’s on Twitter, she’s getting information from the whole entire school asking her about it. And not just her whole entire school, other children from all over Tulsa are calling her and telling her about her picture. People from other school districts are calling her to tell her that the picture is on there. So it’s just everywhere she turns, someone is saying something about it.”
“She dreams of becoming a sports journalist, so something like this has her very concerned about her future as well,” her father says. He fears the photo and its fallout will follow his daughter throughout her life.
The fallout on Tiffany’s basketball team was more immediate — and decisive. The victim who came to be seen as the instigator was effectively shut out the following 2012-2013 season by her teammates. “My coach doesn’t really say much to me” either, she points out.
“They don’t like the snitch game. They don’t like people ratting out their friends and on the team. They try to manipulate me and pick on me with certain things. They might not put me on their team. It’s just a lot different,” Tiffany says, trailing off.
“They’ve ostracized her,” her dad says, jumping in to finish her thought.
Tiffany brightens, though, when the subject shifts to her other extracurricular activity, Booker T’s venerable varsity track and field squad. “Track is my first love,” says the long jumper and sprinter. “So I do a lot of running to clear my head and focus my mind.”
“We got to states in the 4×200 (meter relay) and the 4×100. We got second place in the 4×2. We’re gonna get it this year,” she says confidently. And she was almost right — Booker T. Washington’s girls team raced to another impressive second place finish in the state 4×200 finals in May.
The sandy, infield long jump pit and 400 meters of red, rubberized track that encircle it are places of refuge. But for Tiffany and the rest of Generation Overshare, there are some things you just can’t escape no matter how fast you run.
Dwayne Cooks is a father who knows this too well. He speaks now from a place of authority when he cautions, “We know that kids will be kids on the Internet. You have to be careful about what information you share online. Because once it’s out there, it’s out there. And so when the picture went out like that, you know, now that it’s out there it’s gonna be out there for a lifetime.”