Such an act of cruelty is relatively remote and easy to distance yourself from. (Adults do this too, when they post anonymous caustic notes to a listserv or a comments forum. See how quickly the comments on your average mom listserv get mean. Mothers would never act that way on a playground.) Teenagers can steal a friend's phone and send out a naked picture. They do it without thinking. They don't have to belong to a clique of bullies or mean girls or anyone else. It's just a spontaneous prank—with the lasting consequences of a semi-permanent or replicable record of indiscretion.
All of this hits teenagers in a developmental weak spot. Laptops and cell phones carry with them the potential to wreak havoc in one impulsive instant, which is one thing teenagers do well. According to other students at Hope Witsell's school, the picture she sent of herself topless was forwarded from the phone of the boy she liked by another girl.
There's a well-established correlation between being the victim of bullying and thinking about or attempting suicide. (Kids who bully also think about and attempt suicide more than other kids, though the rate isn't quite as high.) In a new paper, Hinduju and Patchin show cyber-bullying playing a similar toxic role among the middle school students they surveyed. Their data show that victims of traditional bullying were 1.7 times more likely to try suicide as other kids and that victims of cyber-bullying were 1.9 times more likely. (For traditional bullies, the rate was 2.1 times higher and for cyber-bullies it was 1.5 times higher.)
How should we handle these cases, and who should get punished? As my colleague Jessica Grose pointed out on DoubleX, there's no account of the girl who forwarded the message or any other student being disciplined. But I wonder what the kids who forwarded Hope's e-mail have done to come to grips with the consequences. Hope was grounded by her parents and suspended by her school. And yet she reportedly sent another photo of her breasts to a second boy she met over the summer. Since this was after she'd gotten caught the first time, it suggests that she was sliding downward rather than picking herself up. This, too, is more common than we'd like, for a teenager who feels cornered and humiliated. Her mother talked about Hope's suicide on the Today Show, and the video is almost too raw to watch.
The police are still investigating the matter, since sexting can violate the laws against child pornography. But there is a developing consensus against using the child-porn statutes to prosecute teenagers, Hinduju said after attending a meeting of the National District Attorneys Association this week. It just doesn't make sense to use laws written to protect kids to go after them. Instead, like a lot of principals and teachers, the DAs are trying to get a better grasp of what they're dealing with. "Everyone at this summit was clamoring for research on who's most likely to be an offender, or a victim, what are the contributing factors, what are the consequences," says Hinduja. He and Patchin are planning new research to begin to answer those questions. Meanwhile,they offer tips for teen cell-phone use and for parents and teachers.
Parents may be especially key: In King's research, parental monitoring stands out as a way to prevent suicide, independent of other factors, like socioeconomic status and psychiatric history. But here, too, the 2010 kid with a cell phone poses a bigger challenge than the 1980s teen talking on her home land-line. It's harder "for the ordinary, diligent parent to enforce limits in the way it was possible for an earlier generation," King says. True enough. But as Hope Witsell's suicide underscores, we have to figure this out.