It Tolls for Thee

Just days after I wrote about a California school district's decision to monitor the social media accounts of its students, a colleague directed me to a recent story from Miami, Florida that shows, in haunting fashion, what's at stake. 

As reported in the Sept. 13, 2013 edition of the New York Times, 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick “became one of the youngest members of a growing list of children and teenagers apparently driven to suicide, at least in part, after being maligned, threatened and taunted online, mostly through a new collection of texting and photo-sharing cellphone applications.” Her suicide, says the Times, “raises new questions about the proliferation and popularity of these applications and Web sites among children and the ability of parents to keep up with their children’s online relationships.”

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The facts from Rebecca's death are especially chilling. According to the Times:

Inside her phone's virtual world, she had changed her user name on Kik Messenger, a cellphone application, to "That Dead Girl" and delivered a message to two friends, saying goodbye forever. Then she climbed a platform at an abandoned cement plant hear her home in the Central Florida city of Lakeland and leaped to the ground, the Polk County sheriff said.

For the full story, see here.

This harrowing news spotlights the importance of community and collaboration among parents, teachers, family and friends. No one can ignore the toxic environment that social media creates. Nobody can say, “It’s not my responsibility.” Lives are at stake. Schools are at stake. It is an urgent national concern. 

The response starts with parents. Parents, of course, are the first and principal caretakers of their children. They can search cellphones and computers. They can obtain passwords to their child’s social media accounts and, if necessary, delete those accounts. And they are the ones who, night after night, can talk to their children to uncover desperation or hidden fears. They can discuss comments and pictures and help their children discern what should be rejected or avoided.   

And yet parents cannot be everywhere at all times. Parents cannot prevent every intrusion, every predator, every insult. Short of withdrawing from civilization or uprooting from most schools (not an ideal option), parents cannot remove their child from all devices or technology. In Rebecca's case, the Times reports that

Rebecca's mother, Tricia Norman, faces the frustration of wondering what else she could have done. She complained to school officials for several months about the bullying, and when little changed, she pulled Rebecca out of school. She closed down her daughter's Facebook page and took her cellphone way. She changed her number. Rebecca was so distraught in December that she began to cut herself, so her mother had her hospitalized and got her counseling. As best she could, Ms. Norman said, she kept tabs on Rebecca's social media footprint. 

In Rebecca's case, it's not clear what else could have been done. Some blame Rebecca's school for not doing more, but there is a limit to the action that schools can take, particularly when the bullying occurs online, away from campus. Efforts of some school districts to punish students have evoked First Amendment lawsuits, which the offending students and their parents have won. I don't know enough to say what happened in Miami, but I do know that public school districts do not have it easy when it comes to implementing a swift, decisive response. 

Regardless, we know that there are grave questions ahead, and that they will only multiply as apps and social media devour more and more of our time. These questions will require the cooperation and ingenuity of parents, teachers, coaches, judges, and legislators. And at the center of all these conversations must not be some stale doctrine of privacy or autonomy, but this: What best upholds and fosters the infinite and inviolable dignity of the human person? Which actions will support the flourishing of a young man or woman working through the tempests of adolescence? 

In the meantime, we pray for Rebecca and the many others who endure a torment so extreme they no longer wish to live. For their families and friends and the communities affected, we pray that the words of Christ ring true: Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. 

 

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