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.

Girl looking at cell phone. Click image to expand.
Can "sexting" lead to suicide?

In September, a 13-year-old girl in Florida named Hope Witsell hanged herself. Raised in a rural Florida suburb, she was the only child of a church-going couple who met in the post office where they're both employed. "She often went fishing with her father in her big, white-framed sunglasses," according to the excellent reporting in this story in the St. Petersburg Times.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.

Last week, Hope's suicide became the second with a clear link to sexting and the peer torture that can follow from it. At the end of seventh grade last spring, Hope sent a photo of her breasts to a boy she liked, and the picture went viral at her school. "Tons of people talk about me behind my back and I hate it because they call me a whore!" Hope wrote in her journal before her death. Jessie Logan, who was 18 and lived outside Cincinnati, hanged herself last July after nude photos she sent to her boyfriend circulated widely among teenagers she knew. What explains this awful chain of events that leads to tragedy? Is this just the usual bullying, only with different tools, or a distinct harm unto itself? And are these isolated cases or legitimate cause for the wider uproar over sexting?

As a grown-up and a parent, at first I was skeptical about how prevalent anything this blindly risky could really be. But I'm starting to think I was wrong. In three polls that have been conducted on the prevalence of sexting, the numbers are fairly high. The latest, which looks methodologically solid, is an MTV-Associated Press poll reported last week of about 1,450 teens and young adults aged 14 to 24. More than one-quarter said they'd been involved in sexting in some way. Ten percent had sent out naked pictures of themselves on a cell phone or online. And 17 percent of the kids who'd received such a picture reported passing it along to someone else.

Those results match up fairly well with research by Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin, academics who direct the Cyberbullying Research Center, based on their 2007 survey of about 1,900 middle-schoolers. About 12 percent of the kids in that survey said they'd taken a picture of someone and posted it online without permission. That's a lower number than the MTV-AP poll, and the photos involved weren't necessarily sexually compromising. But these kids are younger, and the data was collected two years ago. So, again, dismaying. "Kids do it without thinking," Hinduju says of sexting. "It's a courtship ritual between boyfriend and girlfriend. Or in a more severe situation, there is coercion or trickery to get the picture. But it's becoming commonplace behavior, even if it seems moronic to you and me. We're talking about the neurological immaturity of youth."

There are two schools of thought about how to treat sexting and its more broadly defined cousin, cyber-bullying, which covers everything from hate e-mail to nasty MySpace postings. One is that it's a mistake to focus on the technology at issue, because the hype about it obscures the underlying, long-term trouble: Kids can be incredibly cruel to each other in all kinds of ways. The Internet and the cell phone are just their latest tools. The tactics for addressing cyber-bullying should be the same as the tactics for reducing bullying of all kinds: teach kids to empathize and make sure they have a trustworthy adult to talk to if trouble is brewing.

This makes sense to me. But it's also clear that e-mails and texts and social media have some traits of their own, as the writer danah boyd explains. The bar for becoming a cyber-bully, or even a cyber-bully's accomplice, is much lower than the bar for becoming an actual bully. To torment a girl with a nude photo via sexting, you don't have to Xerox her photo and pass it around, or yell a taunt in the cafeteria, or even whisper about it over the phone, explains Robert King, a psychiatrist at the Yale Child Study Center. You can just press one button and forward the message to lots of other kids. And then those kids, one more step removed from the human being at the center of the flaying, can catch the contagion and spread it.

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.