Habits of the Digital Heart: An Interview with Carrie LeRoy

By Dan Clendenin

Carrie LeRoy is an intellectual property transaction attorney based in Palo Alto and mother of three. Mrs. LeRoy is the leader of an innovative pro bono program focused on educating teens about laws relating to social media usage and sexual assault. The program aims to empower teens to be good citizens online and to deter unlawful conduct. Mrs. LeRoy has trained organizations and other attorneys to enable the program’s expansion. In 2014, she received a “Legal Innovators” award from The Recorder in recognition of her work on the program. In 2015, Mrs. LeRoy was selected by the Silicon Valley Business Journal as one of the publication’s “Women of Influence.” She also was the recipient of The Wiley W. Manuel Award for Pro Bono Legal Services from the California Bar for providing legal services to the poor.

Dan Clendenin: Thanks for joining us, and for sharing your expertise on social media education.

Carrie LeRoy: Thanks for the invitation!

In his little book You Are Not a Gadget (2010), the technology guru Jaron Lanier laments what he calls the new religion of “cybernetic totalism.” He says that we’ve reduced the meaning and mystery of personhood to “the illusion of bits.”

Well, I wouldn’t say that we’ve completely fragmented beyond hope just yet, but we absolutely need to take a hard look at how we are impacted by our increasing dependence on technology and social media, in particular, to construct reality and to influence how we see ourselves and the world.

Social media create some of our “realities” and then act as a force multiplier in communicating them.

Yes. Recall the worst moment of your adolescence. Think rejection, humiliation, exclusion, not fitting in, acting out, making mistakes, exercising poor judgment, being bullied or exploited. Then imagine that several of your peers had pulled out a phone to record that moment and proceeded to share the footage with every person known to you at that time.

It’s hard to be a teenager today, far different than even ten years ago.

That’s the world that our young people must now learn to navigate while they try to figure out who they are, whether they matter, and what values will inform their perspectives and conduct. Most of us could not imagine that our worst adolescent moment — and I think that we all had one or two of them, would never truly end, and that it would be memorialized in a way that would have a lasting impact on how we would see ourselves.

We adults need to learn to help them. I love the Luddites, but their cultural disengagement was counter-productive! These technologies are here to stay, not to mention becoming more pervasive.

You’re correct. We cannot ban these technologies altogether. That said, parents need to stay on top of what their kids are doing with these powerful tools. I encourage parents to enter into a contract with their teens that explains the teen’s obligations (e.g., no bullying, profanity, or inappropriate content or violation of any website’s terms of service), and that makes it clear that adherence to such obligations is a condition of having a phone or social media accounts. I also encourage parents to share stories of technology and social media misuse, and to discuss the associated fallout for victims, perpetrators, and bystanders — all teens will fall into one of these categories at some point, and yet few teens actually know what they should do when presented with technology and content-specific challenges.

Speaking of misuse, tell us about Audrie Pott. She was the subject of a film that premiered at Sundance in January 2016. I think her story provoked you to action?

Yes, the film is Audrie and Daisy. Audrie was a fifteen-year-old student at Saratoga High School in California. On September 12, 2012, she committed suicide several days after she was sexually assaulted (while intoxicated and unconscious) and photos of the assault, including images of her nude body, decorated by her assailants with degrading words and images, were circulated via cell phones and online. During the period between her assault and suicide, Audrie did not speak to any adults. Instead, she interacted solely with her friends via social media and texting.

The social media aftermath defined, created, and then magnified her horrific experience.

She tried to (re)construct reality on the basis of social media messages from her friends. And in a bitter irony, she was wrong — it turns out that only a handful of teens had seen the pictures of her assault, not everyone at her school. Constructing reality and ideas about who we are on the basis of online communications is fraught with peril.

Her story then went national.

Here’s an excerpt from a 2013 Rolling Stone magazine article on the case that shows how she attempted to understand, through exchanging Facebook messages with “friends,” what had happened to her while she was unconscious:

“JOSH [Audrie’s Facebook friend]: lol that shit gets around haha everyone knows mostly everything hahaah

AUDRIE: oh my god. . . . i fucking hate people.

That night, Audrie again confronted Joe, another of her Facebook friends, on Facebook, accusing him of sharing the photos. Audrie wrote that the ‘whole school knows. . . Do you know how people view me now? I fucked up and I can’t do anything to fix it. . . One of my best friends hates me. And I now have a reputation I can never get rid of.’

Writing to another boy on Facebook, she said, ‘My life is over. . . I ruined my life and I don’t even remember how.’”

Tell us about your pro bono work that grew out of Audrie’s tragedy.‎

Inspired by Audrie’s case, through my law firm, a few years ago we created a pro bono impact program that provides education to teens and parents on social media and technology misuse, with the goals of deterring unlawful online conduct, empowering victims, and engaging bystanders to take appropriate action. One of the points that we make in relation to Audrie’s case is that technology can obstruct our ability to understand and respond appropriately to body language and states of mind that are obvious in the context of an in-person interaction. Audrie’s “friends” could not see her expression or reaction to comments such as “lol that shit gets around haha everyone knows mostly everything hahaah.”‎

Social media are disembodied technologies. In the movie Her (2013), Theo Twombly epitomizes the absurd extreme of a totally digitalized life. He falls in love with the digital avatar of an Operating System named Samantha.

I didn’t see that film, but it sounds like a study (however humorous) of the void that is created by a life in which meaning is only experienced in relation to technology. My twenty-year-old son once told me that for his generation‎, if you are not on Facebook, it’s like you don’t exist. Talk about existential dread! Maybe we are living in Lanier’s world — I have a profile picture with over one hundred “likes,” therefore I am.

Being a real human being is more complicated, and certainly more rewarding.

Sensitivity, awareness, the ability to read social cues, even basic human decency — all of this can get lost in technology translation. Had “Josh” (whose real name was kept confidential by Rolling Stone because he was a juvenile) been sitting with Audrie face-to-face, there would have been more of an opportunity for him to see the actual impact of his words on his friend. She might have cringed, cried, or collapsed. That might have prompted Josh to change his tone or, who knows, even to give her a hug and tell her that things are never as bad as they may seem. That’s what it means to be human, really. Instead, he pumped not-so-funny (in retrospect, we can agree) words into the digital matrix with the click of a mouse, feeding Lanier’s “illusion of bits.”

How have these teens and parents responded to your talks? What sort of feedback have you received?

Parents and teens have so many questions about how to navigate all of this. Given my background, my focus is on the legal requirements and rights that we all have in relation to our digital footprints (created by us or by others). Parents are always surprised to learn that nearly 90% of teens surveyed indicated that they would not involve a parent in the event that they were cyber-bullied. Over half of all teens have been asked to send a nude photo to another person online. ‎Parents and teens have reported that understanding options and resources to deal with content and technology-specific challenges is helpful and important. If the Audrie Pott case teaches only one lesson, it is that it takes a real-person village to raise a digital era teen. No young person who is a victim of a serious cyber crime (or assault) should ever try to figure it out on his or her own — the answer cannot be victim-blaming, shaming, and the downward spiral that eventuated in Audrie’s death. Both parents and teens need to hear and reinforce that message.

Any surprises? What have you learned in this process?

The teaching project started out more as a “nuts and bolts” kind of overview of the law and legal consequences. We adjusted the program over time to deal with some of what we consider to be cultural misunderstandings about fault in the context of teen intimacy and the creation and distribution of unlawful content. Students often ask whether, if they get drunk and are subsequently assaulted and wish to report the assault to the authorities, they would be charged with underage drinking. The question itself surprised me because it demonstrates the insidiousness of the victim-blaming mindset: if I make one mistake, everything else that follows (including the intervening acts of others) is also my fault. That makes no sense, of course. If I am your sworn enemy and I decide to trespass on your property, it does not mean that when I fall on my head and pass out on your walkway that you have the right to take my wallet while I’m unconscious. That’s called theft. There is no difference in the context of sexual assault — teens should not drink, but being drunk is neither an invitation to sexual intimacy (i.e., it is not consent — it in fact disproves the existence of consent), nor the cause of another teen’s decision to upload photos or videos of the incident to websites. That’s called theft of a person’s dignity — and in legal terms, rape, sexual battery, cyber-harassment and distribution of child pornography under California law. So, our focus has shifted to address some of the ways that teens’ attitudes and perceptions do not line up with the law — there is a lot that needs to be done to challenge deeply-ingrained and harmful notions about fault in the area of teen intimacy.

Lanier argues that cybernetic totalism “has been bad for spirituality, morality, and business, resulting in a creeping degradation of our own qualities as human beings.”

Empathy is an essential element to our humanity and most spiritual practices, and is a foundation of morality. Cybernetic totalism cannot be good for spirituality and morality. Being constantly plugged in, texting rather than talking, and seeking validation of our views and lives via social media “likes” certainly has the potential to degrade our ability to be authentic, fully present, other-centered, and to experience genuine empathy for others.

Lanier describes much of our social media content as “juvenalia.”

Well, does anyone need to see another plate of pasta, or a meme that tells us that we should share it if we also have the best brother, sister, mother, father or spouse? We need to question social media “reality” and its value. Widespread sharing of illusions online promotes competition and even depression, as others compare their real lives with the carefully-constructed ‎digital lives of others.

Facebook has admitted to manipulating our emotions.

I wonder why it is that we even need or want to see the number of “likes” that we receive on a given Facebook post. What does it really mean to “like” a post anyway? Isn’t it rather meaningless? I can “like” the fact that a person is a cancer survivor and is proud of that, but our best human interactions won’t come from clicking a button online — they will come, as they always have, from taking the time to sit down and have a conversation with the cancer survivor to understand the experience and his feelings about the experience. The Internet isn’t a bad place to meet people or to find like-minded people to befriend, but I think that we can agree that digital relationships simply cannot replace human connections that are possible only through physical presence. A computer or tablet screen does not cry, sweat, shake, or look the user in the eyes. Heck, it doesn’t even “laugh out loud!” There is no empathy in the machine, just fragments and pixels.

Our Facebook “friends” are fake. Our videos on Snapchat vanish. Our photos on Instagram are filtered.

This raises the very important question of whether there is the possibility of authenticity and meaning in digital relationships. A person can have hundreds of online “friends” in her social network but still feel isolated, lonely. My 20-year-old son once told me that he found a website that enables users to instantaneously “friend” a thousand people so that they can seem like popular, likable people. Digital strangers (by definition) are not friends, no matter how many “likes” they generate in support of the pictures of our dear pets. We don’t need strangers to like us (unless we’re politicians) — we need to feel that we matter to a handful of people, and those same people need to know that we will be there for them — in person.

In Christian parlance, incarnation, literally, “in the flesh.” The very antithesis of disembodied, digital pseudo-reality.

As I tell teens when I teach about social media, I had two close friends in high school — and that was enough. There is simply no such thing as having hundreds of real friends — that is part of the social media illusion. And I am personally not ready to receive a digital communion wafer, thank you. Humans are meant to be social — but an emoji is a decidedly poor substitute for the sound of a friend’s real laughter, the sight of a friend’s smile, or a hug — our friends in the flesh.

I remember talking to our mutual friend Arcadio, a former dean of students at Stanford. When I asked him how students had changed across his twenty years there, he said, “students today don’t know how to have a conversation.”

This is becoming a crisis. We need to fight for our unplugged, real selves in the digital age. Young people need to see us (relative elders) unplugging, putting down our devices, and staying present to the present! The other day at a coffee shop I saw an elderly man with a cane trying in vain to open the door to the shop. The place was filled with young people staring down at phones, tablets, and laptops. I jumped up to get the door and it occurred to me that we are all missing so much when we’re glued to tiny screens most of the time. As a Christian, I am called to love my neighbor in the flesh — not just “like” the photos of my “virtual” neighbor who lives across the country. I have to wonder how much is lost on the student sitting in the lecture class multitasking on his laptop. And yes, if we are only texting and posting online, our ability to be present, considerate listeners has got to be on the decline. This cannot be good for anyone, from any perspective.

“The net teaches us to need it,” says the clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle of MIT. Think about it. Digital technologies, by design and intent, create emotional needs and habit-forming behaviors in us, then turn around and offer us the illusions of technological solutions — like Theo falling in love with Samantha, or our fake “friends” on Facebook.

We are the guinea pig generation for the social media experiment, and I think that we all need to take a hard look at how our own habits have changed as we explore or develop new “needs.” Do our mornings start with meditation or prayer, or a social media status update? Do I “need” to message the person sitting next to me, or could we actually talk instead? I went on a spiritual retreat recently and regretted that the adults involved were not instructed to leave their phones behind. I prayed that certain phones (the ones without the centering prayer app) would die. To engage with the eternal, we cannot be in a constant state of distraction and reaction to the barrage of content that we receive on social media — we need to seek silence to be receptive to hearing the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). I certainly struggle with the urge to pick up my phone the moment it starts flashing, but so far, I have not received a message from God on social media, so I’m not ready to say that I really need it.

Seems like we should be doing more about healthy digital habits in our schools, churches, synagogues, and youth groups.

I like the idea of technology sabbaticals — at least one day per week screen-free. As anyone who’s read up on how to improve our parenting skills probably knows, our kids (unfortunately) will do what we do — not necessarily what we ask or tell them to do. Adults need to model having healthy relationships with technology — go to the beach and “just” watch the sunset — you don’t always need to take a picture of it. Go to a concert and watch rather than record the performance on your phone. What is lost when small screens become the filter through which the present moment is experienced? And to the hundreds of tourists who pack themselves in every day to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris, put away your phones. There are lovely post card photographs of this portrait, which I think we can agree will not be enhanced by your selfie. In our faith communities, I think that we should ask that phones be left out of our gatherings as much as possible and at retreats in particular. I know that will not always work, as we are often expected to be on call for work and thus accessible by cell phones, but we should at least strive to reclaim what is truly essential amidst all of the noise and distraction of our digital lives. Spend a day (or two) without your phone and go to a public place. Observe what you see and what others plugged into their phones and tablets appear to be missing. It’s a good way to be reminded of what is essential.

I think you said it best — God calls us to love our neighbor in the flesh, not just to “like” them on the net.

At a church service I feel closest to God when we all turn to each other and pass the peace of Christ. So far, thankfully, no one has whipped out a phone to memorialize these sacred (to me) moments. If anyone ever did, I have no doubt that the sacredness of the moment would be lost in technology translation — it would look like two ordinary humans shaking hands or embracing. But I experience these moments as so much more — they are how I am often reminded of the point of it all and God’s purpose for us. To quote Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” I don’t believe that Instagram has yet developed a filter that would allow us to see with our hearts. Until then, I will stick with showing up in the flesh!

Thanks again for sharing with us, Carrie. If readers want to contact you, are you available to speak in their schools or churches?

Yes, they can email me at carrie.leroy@probonolaw.com, which I hope will result in a real conversation and something other than a virtual relationship (the irony of the fact that people will read this interview online is not lost on me!).

Notes:

For the Rolling Stone article, see Nina Burleigh, “Sexting, Shame, and Suicide” (September 17, 2013).
Jacob Weisberg, “We Are Hopelessly Hooked!” The New York Review of Books (February 25, 2016). A review of four books on the the social and emotional consequences of our internet behaviors.
Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Knopf, 2010), 211pp.
Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here; The Folly of Technological Solutionism (New York: PublicAffairs, 2013), 432pp.

Image credits: (1) USA Today (2) PR Perfect

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