Online social networks and a teen's suicide

Last year Megan Meier, a 13-year-old from Missouri, committed suicide after an online relationship went sour. Megan thought she was dating a likable 16-year-old boy named Josh who she met on MySpace. After a month, Josh turned on her by sending cruel and abusive emails. It turns out that “Josh” was actually the 47-year-old mother — Lori Drew — of one of Megan’s ex-friends. Lori was avenging her daughter, who Megan had apparently spurned in the past.

The press have predictably dined out on the story, which has provided ammunition for those opposed to the dangers, and even evils, of online social networking. danah boyd’s post about this tragic event is interesting and mitigates somewhat against the media hype: Overprotective parenting and bullying: Who is to blame for the suicide of Megan Meier?

It’s true that mediating technology reduces social consequences — e.g. being punched by someone who you insult — because it takes away the immediacy of physical, real-time interaction. (This is not new. Good old-fashioned letters do the same. They shift time and space. But today’s mediating technologies are different because of persistence, searchability, replicability and invisible audiences.) So, does this reduction in social consequence mean that it’s easier to be rude and cruel in cyberspace? Another one of danah boyd’s posts — Musing about online social norms — provides some insight into answering this question.

What happened to Megan was the result of a deceiving, abusive, bullying adult. We should not blame the technology. Further, online activities usually mirror offline ones, e.g. if you are a vulnerable teenager offline, you’ll probably be one online. This looks like the case with Megan. While education about online activities and how to navigate this brave new world might not have saved Megan, it cannot be a bad thing and we should continue to educate young people about life in mediated publics. In this space certain social consequences are limited, but others are exaggerated due to the fact that what you say sticks around, it is searchable, it is replicable and it can be read by unintended audiences. Lori Drew was found out, after all.

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