Poor Michael Phelps. Just a few short months ago, he was America’s golden boy, and now his life has become a cautionary tale out of “Reefer Madness.”

Poor Michael Phelps. Just a few short months ago, he was America’s golden boy, and now his life has become a cautionary tale out of “Reefer Madness.”

After a photo of the 23-year-old swimmer allegedly smoking marijuana at a South Carolina party surfaced earlier this month, USA Swimming punished him with a three-month suspension, the Kellogg Co. dropped him from his sponsorship deal and he recorded a video apology to the people of China at the request of another sponsor, Mazda.

Phelps won’t face any criminal charges, but it’s a shame that this incident has overshadowed his outstanding accomplishments. After all, other professional athletes have done much, much worse — I wonder how O.J. is doing in prison — and Phelps is certainly not the first person to do something regrettable in what he thought was private company.

Now, I’m not condoning the use of illegal drugs, and I’m not saying that eight gold medals gives someone carte blanche to get high whenever he feels like it. But it’s not like Phelps bought TV airtime to tell our nation’s children to grab a bong and go nuts. He was young man at a party with his friends, and his indiscretion was photographed by some tool who saw an opportunity to make money by selling the picture to a British tabloid.

And once that photo was taken, the image of Phelps and that bong was captured forever. Back in the old days before digital cameras, you could get your hands on every copy of an unflattering photo and destroy it, removing the picture from the world forever. Now, image files can be saved and copied and distributed to massive amounts of people in a matter of seconds.

And no matter where you go, it seems like someone is ready with a camera in their pocket or their purse or their phone, just waiting for a chance to join the paparazzi. Think about that next time you’re out in public: If you do something stupid, chances are someone will be ready to take a photo or record a video.

Or an audio file. Also this month, Christian Bale’s expletive-laden tirade from the set of “Terminator Salvation” hit celebrity gossip Web site TMZ, allowing anyone with an Internet connection to listen to the rant — or remix it to a sweet dance beat.

Although the Dark Knight’s career doesn’t seem to have suffered as a result of the incident, I personally won’t feel the same way about him anymore. I just can’t believe that little Jack Kelly from “Newsies” could talk to someone like that.

While there’s no excuse for Bale’s behavior — publicly berating someone is unacceptable, even if you are the star of the biggest film ever made — I do feel a bit sorry for him. Again, this was an isolated mistake that blew up across the Internet to become the rant heard ‘round the world.

The digital age has provided us with convenient and instant methods of communication, and I’ll admit that I love text messaging and Facebook and e-mail just as much as, if not more than, the next person. However, one can’t help but wonder if the cost of losing our privacy outweighs the benefits of these technological developments. Just ask Michael Phelps and Christian Bale.

In conclusion, I’ll leave you with a quote from “The Simpsons.”

Lisa: “Look at the ‘wonders’ of the computer age now.”

Homer: “Wonders, Lisa? Or blunders?”

Lisa: “I think that was implied by what I said.”

Amanda Jacobs can be reached at (309) 346-1111 or ajacobs@pekintimes.com.