Lessons from Miss Teen USA’s Twitter disaster

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On Saturday night, 18-year-old Karlie Hay was crowned Miss Teen USA. By midnight, the Internet had unearthed three-year-old tweets where Hay throws around the N-word like confetti. To the surprise of no one, the Internet was outraged.

By Sunday morning, Hay had issued her formal “apology” on Twitter (although it should be noted that not once did she use the words “sorry” or “apologize”), using multiple tweets from her previous Miss Texas Teen USA account to share, “Several years ago, I had many personal struggles and found myself in a place that is not representative of who I am as a person. I admit that I have used language publicly in the past which I am not proud of and that there is no excuse for. Through hard work, education, and thanks in large part to the sisterhood that I have come to know through pageants, I am proud to say that I am today a better person. I am honored to hold this title and I will use this platform to promote the values of the Miss Universe Organization, and my own, that recognize the confidence, beauty, and perseverance of all women.”

On Sunday, the Miss Universe Organization formally announced that Hay would keep her crown and that they were supportive of her “continued growth.”

Let me be clear: the Miss Universe Organization should have removed Hay from her newly appointed position as Miss Teen USA. Immediately. There shouldn’t have been hesitation. In an era where pageantry is continually fighting to assert its relevance, crowning and then embracing a national level titleholder who is not sensitive to our nation’s charged racial climate is brand suicide. After all, how can an organization claim to be “built on a foundation of inclusion” and “celebrate diversity” if their national level spokesperson has no real understanding of the implication that her repeated and excessive use of the N-word has on the women she is meant to empower?

Hay waited until there was a chance that she would lose her crown before finding it important enough to remove those tweets from her account. If she had truly grown, if she had truly learned, those tweets would have been deleted long before they were used to “out” her in the Twittersphere. She is incredibly privileged.

And, at the same time, she is just like many other kids her age, and their generational misunderstanding of social media and its implications poses major concerns.

As a middle school Technology Education teacher and a college social media education facilitator, I find the latter is true. My middle schoolers see me as “cool” and loop me into their social media lives and concerns while many college aged students keep their accounts public for Insta-popularity, which has allowed me a more in depth look at what pre-adult social media looks like these days.

Today’s kids are both incredibly social media savvy and totally and completely ignorant at the same time. Because they’ve grown up in an era where a large majority of their social lives exist solely on the Internet, it is difficult for them to not share every little detail through the medium while also inflating who they are for popularity. What’s scary is that when they are younger, they lack the ability to understand the long-term implications of their social media presence and the clear judgment to discern how their words can impact others, especially in the larger scheme of things.

The negative impact of kids’ social media use has been studied, of course, and statistics tell part of the story. Over 50% of kids and teens report being bullied online (i-SAFE Foundation), and a third of kids surveyed by FashionPlatyes said that being popular on their social accounts was very important to them. But the full story is found in the personal stories of our kids – in fights that carry from Instagram to the classroom, in the story of Nicole Lovell, a young girl abducted and murdered in Blacksburg, VA following her connecting with college students through KIK, in the current Miss Teen USA’s repeated use of the N-word to appear cooler to her friends.

The Miss Universe Organization missed a major opportunity to do the right thing by aligning themselves with their reported organizational values and not tolerating the use of racial slurs. More importantly, Hay could have been a concrete example to our kids, teaching them that their online presence has consequences – that what they post on a picture or say in 143 characters or less isn’t just the online version of themselves, it is who they are.

So what can we do? Parents, please follow your kids online. Even if they think you’re lame. If they are under eighteen, it should be a prerequisite for them getting the account they want. Have meaningful conversations when they post something that doesn’t align with who they are or what they value. Talk to them about the consequences of what they post. Encourage them to talk to their peers about cyberbullying. Discuss why it’s never appropriate to use the N-word, especially on their public accounts so that they can look cool. Tell them the story of Nicole Lovell.

Although Miss Teen USA is allowed to keep her crown, her tweets will follow her for the rest of her life. They will be read by college admissions counselors, employers, even future friends and suitors, and will be part of her story forever. But perhaps, we can learn something from her, too.

2 thoughts on “Lessons from Miss Teen USA’s Twitter disaster

  1. Dawn Rowley says:

    Jen,

    I actually love how you wind yourself around to an appropriate solution in this post. I actually agree with the Miss Universe Organization’s decision to allow Miss Hay to keep her crown because while she may not have outright apologized, there is potential for the greater good to come out of the publicity and the repeated questions that she is sure to get. I see her use of language not so much a racial issue but as part of a larger, societal issue that unfortunately extends even to my age group. In her post she uses the n-word as a noun representing a friend. On a recent girls trip, one of my friends started a group text called Beach B****es. Now let me get something straight, while I’m sure I can be one occasionally, I do not want to be characterized by that. As I followed Twitter closer over the next few weeks, I noticed that this person referred to her grown daughters (and they to her as well) in that same context. I’ve know this person for almost 20 years and this is a new development which in my opinion is to appear “with it” to her daughters.

    When my son was in middle school (you’ll remember this) all of his friends wanted to wear their pants down below their underwear. He probably did too but we didn’t allow it. They also had an obsession with rap music. My children went to school with primarily white, Hispanic and Asian students and I always felt that this was their way of relating to something that they really did not have experience with and because they viewed it as being cool. Over the years, I’ve noticed that young adults have also adopted terminology that they hear from a variety of places that does not reflect well on who they really are. I hear language from women’s mouths that make me want to look for a bar of soap. It’s offensive and we need to say that it’s offensive.

    All this to say that using inappropriate and foul terminology even when referring to friends and family has unfortunately become accepted. It’s not right and it’s up to parents to not only set the example but to guide their teenagers in interpersonal relationships as well as how to social media. We have to set the standard.

    Love the post.

    Like

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