Sexting Suicides And The Dangers Of Digital Abuse

Illustration for article titled Sexting Suicides And The Dangers Of Digital Abuse

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.

Poll Finds Sexting Common Among Young People [AP]
Survey: One Third Of Youths Have Engaged In Sexting [Wired]
‘Sexting' Bullying Cited In Teen's Suicide [MSNBC]



Here's what keeps running through my head: The technology is incidental. Over a decade ago, I found myself victim of the same kind of sex-related bullying in the halls of my high school. This is was in a age when barely anyone had a beeper yet, let alone a camera phone.

I got to second base with a long time crush. I shared what had happened with a girlfriend, making her swear not to tell. I was worried how my best friend would take it —she shared a crush on the same boy & had a jealous streak in her. Murphy's Law kicked in, & the news got to my bff before I did. In her jealousy & spite, she proceeded to disseminate the story. I was out sick at the time, at home with a painful case of tonsillitis, but that didn't prevent people from spinning my absence into shame to show my face. It was truly absurd. My friend finally called me about this subjective betrayal, we hashed things out, & I considered the matter closed, behind us. But soon after the boy was asked about the incident. He denied it, most likely out of a gentlemanly desire not to kiss-and-tell. But now the same lot that had villainized me, took him at his word, deeming me a delusional attention freak. This was only one, the latest, in a series of vicious falsehoods, all related to my imagined rampant sexual exploits. Despite my virgin status, I often found myself combating rumors of the like that I was being gangbanged by the soccer team in celebration of every win. (They were undefeated that year.) There seemed no end to it. I was drowning in assholes.

I contemplated suicide. When you're a hormonal teenager —especially one coming of age in the era of Seattle grunge— it seems the only way out. By the spring of that year I was begging my parents for a therapist & was ultimately sent to a adolescent mental health facility to treat my depression. (Of course, this began a flurry of rumors of its own.) I came out okay, but have wondered if I hadn't spoke up, if my parents hadn't been so quick to act, if that might not have been the end of me.

Teenagers have long found methods to bullying one another. Girls have long been judged & mocked for their sex lives, even without photographs to hold up as proof. And distressed teens have long suffered under the misguided notion that there is no other way out of the hell that is high school. Sexting is not the issue, & making it so is sytematic of the same ol' hot-button reporting that fails the focus on the real problem. "Don't sext, young ladies! You could wind up hanging yourself in your bedroom!" isn't all that far off from "Don't get drunk at a frat party," & just the latest in the blame the (female) victim that we Jezzies rail against.