Why kids self-destruct with cell phones and online.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Dec. 8 2009 2:08 PM

Hope Witsell's Sexting Suicide

Why kids self-destruct with cell phones and online.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.


Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.