Within a few days of the start of the latest war in Gaza, I sent a series of texts to both our college-aged children.
I urged them to refrain from posting anything on social media that could be taken out of context or used to malign them or misrepresent their views. Emotions are inflamed, I wrote. Students are being doxxed and unfairly characterized as supporting terrorists.
They both bristled at the advice. To be fair, I felt uncomfortable giving it.
I remember vividly how I felt when I was in college and the war in Bosnia raged: More than 100,000 civilians were killed, up to 50,000 women raped and 2.2 million forced to flee their homes.
It was decades before social media existed, so I could only follow the reports in newspapers and had no digital platform to share my outrage and anguish. Had my parents told me to refrain from writing a column about it for my college paper, I would have questioned their sense of humanity.
The campus protests against the Vietnam War were before my time, but I was well versed in the history of student activism and the role it played in anti-war movements.
We’ve taught our children to speak up when they see injustice. We’ve raised them to be thoughtful and considered in how they express themselves. So why did I now feel anxious about what might appear in their private Instagram stories?
It had a lot to do with the news constantly showing up in my own feeds: "doxxing trucks" driving around college campuses, displaying students’ names and personal information and labeling them as "antisemites"; an eighth grader suspended for allegedly saying "Free Palestine"; job offers rescinded; equating those calling for peace as “pro-Hamas.”
My parental instinct to protect was triggered. This desire was heightened by all the reports I was reading about parents in the war zone who had been powerless to protect their children -- those murdered at a desert rave, those held hostage, those buried under the rubble of bombs.
Our young adult children have respected my wishes. But I’ve wrestled with what it means to stifle one’s voice. When wars are subsidized with billions of American tax dollars, citizens have a responsibility to be educated on whether those funds are being used to fight a just war that adheres to international laws. It’s not an easy task to sift through all the disinformation circulating online, but it is a question for each of us to answer. We have to be exposed to a variety of sources and viewpoints in forming our judgments.
I did not want to discourage our children from being engaged or informed about the world. For insight, I turned to author Devorah Heitner, who recently published “Growing up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World.” I’ve followed her thoughtful work on helping children navigate the complexities of growing up online.
“I think the current situation does seem to be especially challenging," she said. "But any time we post -- whether it is about Black Lives Matter, our views on climate change or Me Too, or perspectives on conflicts at home or abroad -- we are in a situation where someone could see and judge.”
That’s true, but students were not getting doxxed, blacklisted, suspended or losing jobs and opportunities for posting on those other issues. This moment is particularly precarious for students.
Granted, social media has never been a good place for nuanced conversation.
“People tend to pile on, engage with a lot of intense outrage or live in their own 'filter bubble,'" said Heitner. She suggested that another way to approach these issues is by learning more about them: reading, going to teach-ins and other events and supporting people who need help. She pointed out that in this particular conflict, there is a longstanding set of conflicting ideas, along with painful and traumatic histories.
“We need to think about what our posts accomplish, as opposed to other actions. What we post doesn’t tend to sway others who may feel entrenched. In-person conversations and thoughtful listening (when possible and safe) can offer a more productive place to grow and to really learn and engage," she said. "Ideally, colleges would offer a facilitated space for learning and conversations with trained facilitators.”
I agree that these kinds of honest, facilitated discussions should be taking place.
But I haven’t even seen this happening among adults. The chilling effect of dissent has silenced any number of thoughtful voices.
As a middle-aged parent, I can understand why.
Just don’t ask me to justify it to the 20-year-old version of myself.