September 11, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Immature brains behind microwave cat video

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

Shining the spotlight on kids who behave badly is always a delicate business. At one time or another, we all do something during our adolescence that sticks to our conscience for decades like gum on a hot sidewalk.

But really, a kitten in a microwave?

Captured on video and posted on Twitter?

Can someone please explain how anyone, anywhere, anytime could consider this not only fun, but a legitimate form of Internet entertainment?

"Anything that reduces the time between the thought and the action is a risk for kids," said Caroline Knorr, parenting editor for Common Sense Media, a nationally renowned nonprofit that helps parents and children navigate the often perilous world of media and Internet technology.

Let's recap:

Last Thursday, two 15-year-old girls from South Portland uploaded a seven-second video to Twitter's new Vine -- a mobile app that, as Twitter put it during the roll-out in January, "inspires creativity."

They can say that again.

The two girls, whose names are not being released because they're juveniles, apparently thought it would be a hoot for one girl to take her family kitten, put it inside a microwave oven and hit the "on" button. Enter the second girl (possibly via a quick editing cut), who then opens the door and removes the kitten unharmed.

By Friday, the South Portland Police Department was awash in anonymous reports of the video on its email account, telephone tip line and Facebook page. At least one or two tipsters, according to Lt. Frank Clark, identified the clearly visible girls by name.

Police charged the girls with animal cruelty on Monday and brought the kitten to the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland, where a lottery will be held for the multitudes who want to adopt the newly named "Miracle." Not surprisingly, Clark has been fielding calls from media outlets and outraged citizens ever since.

What happens next is up to Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, who has yet to receive the final police report. But already, online reaction to the girls' colossally bad behavior ranges from armchair diagnoses of sociopathy to a torrent of suggested punishments.

One caller to the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday said the girls are even getting death threats.

"Obviously, we don't want anyone to take things into their own hands," Clark said in an interview. "This is something that's being handled appropriately by the appropriate people. We don't want anyone going over the line -- we take that very seriously as well."

In other words, people, let's all take a deep breath, step back and consider not only why these two young videographers might use a poor kitten as their prop, but also why they'd post it all online for every citizen of cyberspace to witness.

Back to Common Sense Media's Knorr, who spends a good chunk of her time blogging -- at www.commonsensemedia.org/blog – about the perilous nexus between an adolescent and her (or his) "send" button.

Knorr's assessment of what happened here, albeit from her organization's headquarters in faraway San Francisco: It's a lot easier for a kid to get in trouble today than it was before the Internet hijacked the life of the average American adolescent.

"It's not the technology that's bad," Knorr said. "But kids do act out using the technology -- and now the consequences of that are public. Now, everyone can see what they did."

Which, ironically, is often more a goal than a consequence.

"Justin Bieber got famous from releasing YouTube videos," Knorr noted. Conversely, she said, the "Rebecca Black – Friday" video, featuring a previously unknown California girl with (I'm being kind here) marginal talent, has become a YouTube sensation primarily because it's considered so over-the-top terrible.

"There's a monkey-see, monkey-do type of thing even if they get negative attention," said Knorr. Teenagers see what goes viral "and they imitate it because it's just so easy to do."

(Think she's kidding? Go to Google, type in "cat microwave video" and hit the "video" search link. I stopped scrolling after Page 4.)

Paradoxically, Knorr said, many kids use the Internet to make a splash (or a splat) within their own finite universe without stopping to consider that their audience goes way beyond their own high school's cool crowd.

"It's really difficult for them to understand the concept of this vast, invisible audience that's out there on the Internet," said Knorr. "It just doesn't occur to them that this is illegal and that they might get into trouble."

Rather, she said, their reaction is likely to be, "Oh! There's somebody out there who doesn't think what I did is the greatest thing in the world?"

Finally, Knorr points to that confounding data processing device that has nothing to do with the Internet: the adolescent brain.

"It's really, really hard for kids to think through the consequences of their actions. Their brain is not that fully formed," said Knorr. "That's why it's so important for parents to be aware of the technologies that kids are using, especially if they're using smartphones and apps that allow them to instantaneously upload something to the Internet."

Meaning you have a choice, parents of kids who probably know a lot more about that iPhone than you do.

You can join the chorus that's now condemning two local girls whose bad Internet judgment may cost them more than they ever imagined.

Or you can do something far more constructive and ask your own teenager (or pre-teen, for that matter), "Tell us, dear, what did you do in cyberspace today?"

"Know what they're using," said Knorr. "And ask how they use it, because a lot of times, obviously, kids are way more technologically savvy than their parents are."

Then, last but by no means least, look beyond the laptop or mobile device to the child attached to the keyboard.

"Kids don't just all of a sudden go bad because they can do something on YouTube," noted Knorr. "Their technical savvy outpaces their judgment, but it's not the tools that made them do that."

She's right. Long before that helpless kitten was uploaded for all the world to see, someone had to decide that a cat in the microwave was actually funny.

Twitter Vine, meet moral disconnect.

 

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

 

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