Lessons kids and parents can learn from the Manti Te'o hoax

Lessons kids and parents can learn from the Manti Te'o hoax

Manti Te'o gained fame this fall for both his amazing tackles on the football field as a linebacker for Notre Dame, and as an individual after it was reported that he was playing through great grief after his grandmother and girlfriend died within hours of each other. Yesterday, a Deadspin.com article broke the story that Te'o's girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never actually existed; Notre Dame said that Te'o was the victim of a hoax. I don't have any idea of what the actual truth is here. While the facts are still being sorted out, though, there are still a lot of valuable lessons here, especially for tweens and teens.

I mentioned the scandal to my tween this morning. While my tween is not a Notre Dame fan (despite my two degrees from the school), she knows who Te'o is. When I asked her about him this morning, she said that she knows he's a really good football player, and then added that she thinks he's a great guy. She and the rest of America bought into the national media coverage of him. I gave my tween a thumbnail sketch of what's known of the hoax so far, including that Te'o's contact with the "girlfriend" was solely online, and that people online who claimed to be his girlfriend were not who they said they were, and that there are no records of Lennay Kekua anywhere. She did not exist, and she did not die of cancer this fall. As we talked about the events, I realized that there were a ton of lessons to teach/reinforce. Never miss a teachable moment, I say.

Lesson: Be careful online. 

While my tween already knew this lesson to some extent, this reinforces it in a big way. People lie online. Kids on the internet MUST be careful.

My tween said yesterday her class reviewed websites as part of their library time, and one of the goals was to evaluated whether or not they were true. Apparently, all 5 sites the students viewed contained falsehoods, including a site with travel pictures that she said were faked using a green screen. She was not at all shocked that items on the internet are not what they purport to be.

I asked my tween how she thinks Te'o feels now, and she winced. This is a good illustration that people online have the ability to cause hurt and damage on many levels. Te'o's future is clouded by this scandal. At a press conference yesterday, Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said this is something Te'o "will carry this with him for awhile."

The picture used for the imaginary "girlfriend" came from somewhere - be careful of the pictures you post online. They can be used in ways you never imagine.

Lesson: Don't lie.

Speaking of lying, it's bad. It is unclear to what extent, if any, Te'o was aware of and complicit in the deception. Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick made it clear at a press conference last night that they stand by Te'o, whom they see as a victim. Not even my tween is convinced of this.  We talked briefly about how it is possible that what was a little lie quickly grew into something bigger. It was a good conversation about "what a tangled web we weave" and that lies can spiral into more lies with more people quickly.

Also, say what you mean. Te'o is quoted as saying his "girlfriend" was "the most beautiful girl I've ever met." Use your words carefully. He now says he never met her in person.

Lesson: Don't hide.

Sometimes we have information that we do not share right away and while that may not be lying, it doesn't make you look good.  Sins of omission are tough ones.

My tween wanted to know who knew what when about Te'o and Kekua. (Join the club, kiddo.) When I told her Te'o told Notre Dame he knew of the deception on Dec. 26, 2012, she was very surprised. She asked why Notre Dame didn't do anything about it, given that the game was more than a week away. (I had no idea she was that aware of the bowl schedule.) I told her I didn't know.  Looks like my 10 year-old understands the basic PR approach of "get out in front of the story."I asked her how it looks that they didn't say or do anything until now, and she said, "Bad!" (Today it's come to light that Te'o was aware on Dec. 6, so he waited almost 3 weeks to tell Notre Dame. She's not going to like that.) This illustrates that it hard to believe people who act as if they are hiding something, even if they are not.

I asked her how it would look if I knew something important and did not tell her for weeks. Point made.

This connects to the similar lesson that your reputation is invaluable, and fragile.

Lessons for parents: The internet is not a nice place and children need to be monitored. Show kids the real life implications of what you are trying to teach them, and use those examples to reinforce your points. Important points can be made in brief conversations - we didn't talk long before she had to get to school, but it was a valuable talk.

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