After a thirteen-year-old committed suicide due to sexting-related bullying, a poll found that both sexting and "digital abuse" are disturbingly common — and that the latter is associated with suicidal thoughts.
Rihanna's comment earlier this week that "if you don't send your boyfriend naked pictures, then I feel bad for him" seemed shocking, but it may simply reflect how common the practice has become. An AP-MTV poll surveyed 1,247 young people between 14 and 24, and found that about a third had either sent or received naked pictures via text or email. This might sound like standard rainbow-party-style alarmism — but the poll also found that 61% of those who'd sent a picture of themselves felt pressured to do so. A Louisiana 25-year-old explained, "It's just when you're talking to a guy who's interested in you, and you might have a sexual relationship, so they just want to see you naked." The AP and MTV apparently don't count this kind of pressure as a form of "digital abuse," but they still find that said abuse is prevalent — about half of respondents have suffered it. Those who have experienced digital abuse are three times as likely to consider suicide as other young people, and three times as likely to think about dropping out of school. 12% of kids who had engaged in sexting had considered suicide, although the study didn't examine whether their suicidal thoughts were prompted by the sexting itself.
The AP and MTV's definition of digital abuse encompassed behaviors like digital blackmail, but the most common form was a smear campaign. And this, essentially, is what happened to Hope Witsell. Below is her mother's appearance on the Today Show yesterday morning.
Hope Witsell committed suicide after a topless photo she sent to a boy she liked made the rounds at her school, and led not only to unrelenting taunts by her classmates but to a suspension from school. The latter — and the tone of MSNBC's accompanying article on the tragedy — indicate that adults might still be taking the wrong approach to sexting. Michael Inbar writes that "one impetuous move robbed Hope of her childhood, and eventually, her life." He also says, that Hope's "life, once so promising, unraveled after one mistake." But while sending a topless photo isn't a smart thing for a 13-year-old girl to do, it wasn't her "mistake" that caused her death — it was the harassment she endured. And while it's wise to teach kids not to sext each other, it's not fair to suspend them for it without punishing the kids who subsequently bully them.
Obviously it's easier for schools to target the subject of a naked picture than the many students who forward it around. But it's those kids — the ones who think a naked picture makes a girl a "slut," or that it's okay to call her one in the hallways — who most need to change their behavior. The AP-MTV study is most useful insofar as it shows how common it's become for young people to use technology to abuse one another. It's this abuse that needs attention — and appropriate punishment — if we want to prevent tragedies like Hope Witsell's death from happening again.