A confluence of some of the most disturbing trends in American society led to the lockdown Wednesday of Highland High School in Pocatello, Idaho.
In the wee hours of the morning on October 7, an unnamed 15-year-old male had a Facebook Messenger exchange with another person, age and gender unknown. A screenshot of a portion of the conversation was obtained by local media and offers a chilling insight of just how established the script for school shootings has become. The captured conversation appears to directly follow a denial of the male teen’s request for nude photos:
Male teen: Fine then I will bring a gun to school Friday and kill all the girls
Unknown person: Don’t do that
Male teen: I will. I’m serious. Will do it at 9:30 Friday during first hour
Unknown person: Don’t
Male teen: In serious I have 12 gauge shotgun and 9 mm pistol I will bring and start killing everyone
Unknown person: Stop it
Male teen: I also have hunting knives I can bring
Unknown person: Knock it off
Male teen: So. I’ve got this figured out I will start in upper b hall work my to lower b halls I will then do the attendance office c hall. Then e building enter back the other c hall and finish in the weights room
Unknown person: This
Unknown person: Over freakin nudes? Dude
Male teen: Because no one will give any to me. Every one hates me. And I hate [obscured]. Also I will kill myself after
Unknown person: Ok calm down
Male teen: No I hope everyone has a will written
Unknown person: We’re kids
Unknown person: Nothing valuable
Unknown person: Except our lives so leave us alone
Male teen: Look at my message
Male teen: What’s [obscured] first hour
Unknown person: Like I would know
The conversation was reported anonymously to school officials later that morning. Highland High School was immediately put on restricted access and the Pocatello Police Department quickly began a digital investigation to determine the identity of the individual making the threats. By late afternoon, the young man had been identified, arrested, and incarcerated in a local juvenile detention center.
He has been charged with two counts of telephone harassment and one count of threatening violence on school grounds.
During the course of the investigation, police determined that the same individual had used a Twitter account to harass various Highland High School students (primarily women) and make racist statements.
This incident offers us an opportunity to consider some of the corrosive forces that are at work in our society. We are fortunate to be able to do so, at least in this case, without also mulling the lost opportunities and wasted lives of an actual shooting. Each of the following can (and probably will) be the subject of much longer posts at some point, but are offered for discussion purposes today:
- Sleep deprivation and parenting challenges: It is worth noting that these kids were messaging with each other at 12:30am in the morning. Sleep deprivation and reduced judgment among teens are increasingly serious issues, ones that are deeply exacerbated by digital devices and the relentless demands of social media. If anyone has a solution, let me know; our 17-year-old is often up until 2 or 3 in the morning, mostly working, but undoubtedly having online conversations as well. The one obvious solution — turning off the router at some pre-defined time — would undoubtedly be met with howls of outrage and the waving of pending assignments. Suggestions are welcome.
- Sexting and nude selfies: We know from research that not every teen takes nude selfies; the best estimate is that maybe as many as 25 or 30 percent do so. But the percentage of teens who have seen or received a nude selfie is much higher, perhaps 75 or 80 percent. Add in the widespread media coverage and the way teens gossip and it is easy to imagine a situation in which a socially awkward person might think that he was the only one being left out.
- Online pornography: As I have frequently pointed out to my lecture audiences, for the past two decades we have been running an unsupervised and unregulated longitudinal study on the effects of increasingly hardcore pornography on our children. Since the advent of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s and in particular, since their enthusiastic adoption of mobile devices in the 2000s, teens have had access to unprecedented amounts and kinds of sexually explicit material. We are only just beginning to examine the implications of that development, let alone assess its impact.
- Toxic Masculinity: To paraphrase John Dean’s warning to Richard Nixon, there is a cancer on masculinity that threatens to rip it apart. A phrase to describe the problem — “toxic masculinity” — is growing in popularity and the phenomenon is coming under increasing scrutiny. One of its most virulent manifestations is a deeply-seated sense of sexual entitlement (see, e.g., the aggrieved videos of Elliot Rodger, who killed six young people in Santa Barbara in a sexually frustrated-fueled rampage). The factors contributing to toxic masculinity are manifold — economic, technological, social, cinematic, pro athletic, pornographic — but there is no question that far too many males now see a need to assert their masculinity using high-powered ordnance on innocent targets.
- Guns, guns, guns: Childhood is not what it was, even as recently as two decades ago. First, access to increasingly powerful technology has put children on a par (or even ahead of) many adults when it comes to access to sexually explicit materials. And second, the staggering number of guns sold in this country has made it easier than ever for the young and the disgruntled to get their hands on devices capable of wreaking havoc and death. On the one hand, we provide teens with devices that help create a skewed and unrealistic expectation of unlimited, on-demand sex (at least from the perspective of males) and then do almost nothing to limit their access to deadly weaponry. We make Nero look like a disciple of David Allen.