Read the rest of Emily Bazelon's series on cyberbullying.
In his new movie Trust, director David Schwimmer tells the dark story of an Internet predator who lures a 14-year-old girl named Annie into having sex with him. I know that it's not necessarily a movie's job to provide moral uplift. But I'm still bothered by how Trust turns the aftermath of Annie's statutory rape into a disturbing lesson.
Warning: I have to give away much of the plot to explain. Annie's father is so distressed by what's happened to his daughter that he can barely look at her. Meanwhile, at school, Annie sees a horrible, pornographic website someone has made about her. She runs home, where she looks through the window and sees her father in the kitchen. Instead of going to him for comfort, she tries to kill herself.
Annie's attempted suicide troubled me, and not just because the movie handled it so poorly, with a heavy-handed script and so-so acting. The suicide also got to me because the film comes on the heels of two videos, made to warn teens about the dangers of the web, which misguidedly hit them over the head with depictions of suicide. It's as if the fear of technology and its effect on kids is blinding the makers of these films, however well-intentioned, to a greater risk: Suicide contagion, a real phenomenon backed up by decades of research that shows how media about suicide can influence vulnerable people to see it as a solution to their problems.
The first video was produced, inexplicably, by the education committee of the Antitrust Section of the American Bar Association, with funding from Microsoft Corporation and Time Warner. It has the sledgehammer script of a condensed afterschool special. Three mean girls (their meanness established by their nice hair and makeup) launch a campaign to torment a girl named Jenna for being a "fat pig slut." Jenna is seen walking down the hallway as kids hurl insults at her, then hunched over her computer in distress. In class, the mean girls chortle over a new website called "hatersofjenna.com." (A new website, not a social network page—very 2005.) In the next scene, the mean girls are sitting in a classroom when an announcement comes over the loudspeaker: Jenna has committed suicide. What kind of school would tell kids about such an event in this numbskull way? Never mind, because it's time for the police to show up to take the mean girls away.
When she saw the video, Nancy Willard of the Center for Responsible Use of the Internet worried that it makes killing yourself seem like the perfect revenge against bullying: No more misery for you, and the culprits get punished. She wrote to the ABA, which responded, "Although it would probably be impossible to design a dramatic treatment of this important and highly complex topic in a fashion that perfectly calibrates all the key messages and possible take-aways to every possible concern, we believe our video strikes the right balance." But the video has nothing in it about how Jenna could have gotten help, no models of kids or adults reaching out to her, nothing to help kids remember that however awful bullying feels in the moment, high school doesn't last forever. It's like the dark opposite of Dan Savage's It Gets Better project, offering hopelessness instead of hope. My own hope is that it's too cheesy and unrealistic for kids to take seriously. To see what a video like this should be like, watch this fabulous Irish PSA against homophobic bullying, which Andrew Sullivan posted today. Here, a boy stands up and holds hands with a gay kid who is being bullied, then lots of other kids follow suit. It's modeling the right kind of response to bullying.
The trailer for the second problematic video, produced by the Bergen County prosecutor's office in New Jersey, starts with the exaggerated statistic that one out of every three teenagers is being bullied right now. (A more accurate figure is that 12 percent to 25 percent of kids are involved in bullying over the course of a year, as victims or bullies or both.) It focuses on 16-year-old Brandon, who becomes the subject of an online whisper campaign (are the kids saying he is gay?). Against thudding music and an ominous black screen, the viewer is asked "What would it be like/ To confront an Enemy/ That has No Face?" In the trailer, Brandon is shown walking onto a bridge and then looking out at the water. In the last scene, he stands at the railing with the noose around his neck and the other end of the rope tied to the railing, breathing heavily. He leans out slightly toward the camera, which cuts away to the rope being pulled tight around the railing. "It leaves very little to the imagination," said Ann Haas of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The video is being shown to ninth-graders in local high schools, including, Willard says, the one that was attended by Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who killed himself when he jumped off the George Washington Bridge last fall. Since he was a senior when the video apparently aired at his school, there's no reason to think he saw it. But the coincidence is eerie.
The AFSP wrote to the Bergen County prosecutor's office in December to warn that the video "could have unintended and potentially dangerous consequences." The letter complains about the depiction of Brandon's death and points out that the video "also gives an overly-simplistic understanding of the relationship between suicide and bullying which can lead other kids who are being bullied to see suicide as a solution. Furthermore, the film misses a real opportunity to inform students about underlying causes of suicide, how to seek help if they are being bullied or in emotional crisis, and alternative coping strategies."
Wylie Tene, the public relations manager of the AFSP, told me that Bergen County wrote back to defend the video as aimed at preventing cyberbullying, not suicide. But isn't it wrongheaded to ward off bullying with materials that suicide professionals think could put kids at risk of the worst possible outcome? I called the prosecutor's office twice to ask that question and didn't get a call back. According to NorthJersey.com, the Park Ridge Police Department, which trains police and educators to present the video, recognizes that "This isn't a film you just show to students," as Lt. Joseph Rampolla put it. The prosecutor's office holds 90-minute training sessions and the video comes with a teaching guide.
But it's hard to see how a few hours of training makes up for the flaws with this whole package. Willard points out that the teaching materials include true/false questions that make it seem as if sexting and cyberbullying are more widespread than they are. ("Many teens post inappropriate images of themselves online. True!!! Most teens have harassed or bullied at least one other person online. True!!!!"—well, actually, false!!!!). The problem with this approach is that it makes bad behavior seem normal and even expected, rather than deviant. "The most important point is that most kids don't bully," says Larry Magid, a director of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit Internet safety organization. "It's a small percent of outcasts who do that. The 'norm' is to treat each other respectfully. And since kids want to be normal' they should emulate what most of their peers do and not be jerks." Here's more on this idea, from Magid's co-director, Anne Collier.
To be fair to David Schwimmer, Trust isn't nearly as dreadful as these other two videos. Schwimmer consulted with a rape foundation in Santa Monica about his film. While the scenario he presents of an adult preying on a teenager online is rare, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, it does happen. Hemanshu Nigam, a former federal prosecutor who has worked on these kinds of cases, wrote that as he watched the movie, "I kept thinking how much TRUST is true to life in the digital century."
The problem with the film, though, is that it offers a bad model for how parents should deal with a kid spending time online. When they see her constantly texting and IM-ing, Annie's parents don't ask her about what she's doing. After the rape, her mother talks about how her daughter is ruined and the father acts as if she is. In the last scene between Annie and her father, there is a mawkish nod to reconciliation, but it's unconvincing. Thankfully Truth is far too somber and heavy to draw much of a teen audience. For parents, I guess it could work as an anti-model: Here's what not to do, from start to finish.