A Mother Of A Teenage Boy Wonders About Her Own Son’s Internet Profile: Could He Be Mistaken for a Sociopath?

Internet profiling makes me long for the days of the locked diary and those feverish journal entries, never meant to be viewed again by either you, law enforcement or the public at large.

Apr 26, 2013 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

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As the parents of the suspects of the Boston bombing are being interviewed and every single trace of the Tsarnaev brothers' Internet presence is examined, much has been read into tweets by the brothers of lyrics by Eminem and Jay-Z. As authorities and much of the country -- if not the world -- were pouring over Facebook pictures and status updates as "amateur sleuths," to quote The Boston Globe, scouring social media for clues to understanding these young men, I lay awake wondering how much I know about my own teenager's electronic trail, how he might be perceived and my own complicity in his virtual life.
 
Let me first note that I grew up in a family of women. I have one sister and the majority of my cousins are female so my knowledge of teenage boys up until becoming the mother of one was limited to dating them. Teenage Boy-land, I am learning, is a landscape fraught with stupid behavior, thoughtless actions and macho posturing and my son, at 15, is an honors student who never been arrested, much less ever been sent to the dean at his high school.
 
Even at a glance, his Facebook page brings up questions. For reasons I can’t explain and never seriously contemplated until now, my son lists his hometown as Las Vegas. To my knowledge, he’s only been there twice, once for a baseball tournament and once to accompany me on a writing assignment and he didn’t appear to like it much.
 
Perhaps he thinks it looks “cool” but could this be interpreted as a desire to be associated with shady criminal behavior? We saw "Oceans Eleven," "Twelve" and "Thirteen" together. In addition, there are numerous pictures of him flashing what may or may not be gang signs, I don’t actually know what one is exactly, so I can’t be sure.
 
There are also several shots of him dressed as Malcolm McDowell’s character in "A Clockwork Orange."  It was Halloween, 2012, when he came up with what I thought was an imaginative and frankly, easy to pull off costume -- something every working parent can appreciate. Coincidentally, another friend of his had the same idea, so now we can see a “pattern of behavior” in his circle of friends.
 
Of note is that neither boy has seen the film. Posters of McDowell had appeared around Los Angeles as part of an art exhibit. But could this be viewed as some kind of thuggish, sociopathic ideation?
 
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This year's Halloween doesn't present a much more positive picture of my offspring. Having recently studied how infectious diseases can be spread through interspecies sexual contact, my son and a classmate thought it humorous to coordinate costumes. My kid, 5’4, came to school costumed as a lamb (a purchase I oversaw) and his friend was a 6’1 furry white rabbit.  Some comedic miming of a sheep sodomizing a hare is memorialized on the Web. It is such an improbable image that I found it rather hilarious and in what is no doubt a sign of what a terrible parent I am, that picture is my computer homescreen picture. 
 
Quoting lyrics from bands? Lines of a song by his favorite indie band, Surf Curse, inspired from the cult hit, "Heathers," about taking a hit out on a classmate, appear on his social media feeds. Am I complicit in encouraging this? Maybe so. I find the song so catchy, I often sing it around the house with him.
 
Of course, these are the examples of his possibly suspicious cyberspace fingerprint that I am aware of. He’s on Twitter, Instagram, he texts, AIMs, and iChats. When I announced I didn’t want him texting after 10 p.m., he informed me that he’s actually SnapChatting and making 6 ½ second Vines. Some will no doubt say I need to monitor my son more closely, but I just can’t keep up; new apps are created every week and teenagers are the earliest adopters to new technology.
 
In what is probably another one of my failures as a parent, I have reluctantly agreed to allow my son to keep his phone locked and the code to open it is… wait for it … the outline of a pentagram. I don’t want to sound naïve, but I am certain my son wouldn’t know a Satantic ritual even if he was being sacrificed in one, but I’m familiar enough with the West Memphis Three case to know teenage boys have been arrested for less. (The "evidence" used to convict Damian Echols one of the West Memphis Three was that he read Stephen King novels and listened to Slayer and perhaps the unfortunate coincidence that Damian was the name of the spawn of the devil in "The Omen" movies.)
 
In addition, all of his accounts have also been hacked, numerous times. Have I reminded him to delete the derogatory speech included in the hacking? I honestly can’t remember. I wasn’t taking it that seriously. But that was then and this is now. Some day, someone might have ‘splaining to do, and I’m not sure if it’s going to be me or him. 
 
In no way do I mean to sound reductive of the heinous acts of terrorism committed in Boston, but Internet profiling is a slippery slope and makes me long for the days of the locked diary and those feverish journal entries, scribbled in haste, never, ever meant to viewed again by either you, law enforcement or the public at large. 
 
Postscript
Yesterday, after I wrote this essay, I received the news that an 18-year-old was stabbed to death on my son's high school campus, which means Internet profiling will be occurring even closer to home -- amongst his peers and classmates -- than the Boston Marathon bombing.
 
As the LA Times reported: "Two people were arrested Thursday in connection with the stabbing death of a student. Using social media, among other tools, investigators narrowed their search to two males between 16 and 19 years old," said a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Police Department.
 
Annabelle Gurwitch is the author most recently of "You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up," currently at work on a memoir for Penguin, spring 2014.