When Ramin Fatehi '96 was a student at Norfolk Academy, many aspects of the approach that the school takes to shaping students into adults were the same as they are today, including the school's emphasis on “honor, rectitude, and service to others."
On Tuesday, September 20, Mr. Fatehi, who was elected as Norfolk Commonwealth's Attorney last year, returned to campus as a special guest speaker with a forceful lesson about navigating social media, which he said has fundamentally and irrevocably changed life for young people. He spoke in the Johnson Theater to the Upper School and to students in grades 6-9 in two separate presentations.
Students today have less freedom to make mistakes in words, action, or judgment than he or his classmates had decades ago, because statements and images from social media, texts, or emails, can come back--even decades later--to haunt them as adults. “There are things you can't take back. There are things you can't fix," he said.
Mr. Fatehi came to Norfolk Academy at age 7, after spending his early years in Tehran; his father, a neurosurgeon, is Iranian, and his mother, who worked as a nurse, is American. Maintaining connections to family in Iran meant long distance phone calls, which came at huge expense, often with unreliable service.
He was involved with many activities at Norfolk Academy. He wrestled, played tennis, was part of the Chamber and Academy Singers, and participated in the Science Fiction, REACH, JETS, and Chess clubs. After graduating, he attended Yale University, where he majored in history, then Columbia Law School. He clerked for the Hon. Elizabeth B. Lacy, the first woman appointed to the Virginia Supreme Court. He has served as a prosecutor since 2006, and was elected Norfolk Commonwealth's Attorney last November.
During his years in the Upper School, Mr. Fatehi honed his skills at persuasion, debate, and argumentation. He won the prize for giving the best Senior Speech, and he served as co-editor of the Belfry, the school newspaper. In that capacity, he wrote dueling opinion pieces with his co-editor on an array of topics. Since that time, he noted, his views have evolved so dramatically they are in some cases the polar opposite of what he wrote as a teen, and he considers it fortunate that the Belfry was distributed as a print edition, which could be tossed aside and forgotten.
Now, young people “publish" their views on social media, whether in posts or even comments, and that material has surprising durability. The near-permanence of digital life makes it challenging for people to evolve and grow, he noted, because they are unable to make a clean break from ideas they once held (and now reject), or from impulsive, embarrassing actions that are a natural part of growing up. College admissions offices check the online profile of potential students, and employers do the same for potential hires.
As a result, students should be extremely cautious about material they choose to share and the individuals they trust with their personal information. Online predators use trickery to gain the confidence of young people and then victimize them. “There are people who do not think like we do, people who think you ill," Mr. Fatehi said. “We send people to prison, predators who look for 14-year-olds and ask them to send nude photos." Even after such criminals are punished, the photos can circulate on the web for years, despite every effort by the victims and even law enforcement to get them removed, he said.
Mr. Fatehi also spoke about other negative behaviors that are magnified in their impact and permanence by social media, such as cyberbullying. “It is harder to to dehumanize people when you have to look them in the eye," he noted. “It is far easier to be unkind when you don't have to see what you are doing to them."
His speech did not dwell solely on the ills of social media. Movements like the Arab Spring, with massive pro-democracy demonstrations in countries led by dictators, and marches in the United States for women's rights and civil rights, were enabled by the swift connections made possible through social media platforms. And families are now able to connect easily across continents via digital connections, rather than paying the exorbitant rate for long-distance phone calls.
Students can develop strategies for navigating the potential pitfalls of digital life. He encouraged them to think carefully about what they share or say online. When they have doubts, or even a moment of hesitation, they should consult parents for a second opinion.
He advised students to ask themselves a question before sharing a photo or posting online: “What would happen if someone who didn't like me got this?"
He closed his speech with a famous quotation from Shakespeare's Othello, which reinforced his theme:
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands:
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.