Texting suicide

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Q: I recently read that a young woman was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for texting a friend to kill himself.  I find this case incredibly concerning because the girl who was convicted was only 17 at the time and my own teens text each other in ways that could be easily misinterpreted. For example, my 16-year-old daughter sent the text, “I want to kill my teacher for assigning another Hawthorne book” which received responses such as, “go 4 it” and “Great, I’d like a homework free wknd” Could these teens be charged for murder if someone in their group text committed a horrible crime?

~ Dial M for Murder, Boston MA

A: The “involuntary manslaughter by text” case starkly illustrates how technology and our behaviors with technology outpace our legal system. We are applying laws made before the advent of internet, social media, and smartphones to actions undertaken in a world where we are globally connected, communications go far and fast, and what is posted online can stay there forever. Indisputably,  our legal system needs to update law to reflect the realities of the Digital Age. You are absolutely right, what your daughter and her friends posted in juvenile jest could be misinterpreted, either by the legal system or by a peer who, with the perceived support of his friends, may act impulsively. But this scenario is unlikely to happen with healthy, well-adjusted kids, even those who do not take a moment to think about how their snarky comment of the moment might be understood by others.

The “involuntary manslaughter by text” case was not one of “kids being kids”, but one in which the prosecution, the defense, and the judge acknowledged that both “victim” and “perpetrator” were psychologically troubled. In this case, the combination of depression, trauma, psychological instability, and the limited impulse control of adolescence with ready access to instant distant communication resulted in a lethal outcome. It is arguable whether the existing law under which the girl was convicted is the best way to protect ourselves and each other in an environment of total connnectivity. Because the law didn’t explicitly address the ethics presented by technological capabilities, her case will most likely be appealed and may be overturned. It is through this admittedly cumbersome and slow process that the law evolves to fit the world that it governs.

Technology and the ways in which we use  it is evolving too rapidly for us to depend on the law to protect us online or to be concerned about risks of breaking it with our online behaviors. We need to behave toward each other in the digital world the way that we would want others to behave toward us in the physical world – a 21st Century Golden Rule. Just as your daughter undoubtedly wants to be treated with respect and kindness, she should choose to treat others with respect and kindness.

This goes without saying in the offline world, but in the online world, where texts are devoid of the nuance and context provided by eye contact, tone of voice, and body language that we have when interacting in the physical world, even a joke about killing can be heard as a threat. While there are those who say that cyberbullying is just “teen drama”, what a sender’s joke intends and what the receiver interprets can be very different. Adolescents have yet to develop reliable impulse control. If the receiver of “teen drama” feels hurt, threatened, or dared to do something by the sender, he or she may not have the executive function to recognize the joke and may act on it.

To help young people manage such online interactions, we need to understand and teach our children digital literacy skills. While your daughter was joking about her frustration in a group text, her classmates’ responses may have reflected that they understood it the way she intended – or could have revealed more troubling thought processes. The digital environment not only makes  messages harder to interpret, but can make us feel removed from situations, creating a false sense of anonymity, safety, and, in some cases, a sense that we aren’t responsible for what we do and say online. Digital literacy not only helps us to understand that there may be multiple interpretations of what we read or see online, but helps us to be good digital citizens. Just as we are responsible for our offline statements and actions, we are not free of liability for what we say and do online. Our behaviors affect others, whether online or IRL.

Talk to your daughter about this case and ask her to reflect on what she texts with her responsibilities as a digital citizen in mind. Help her understand how easy it can be to misinterpret what is texted. Ask her to practice pausing for a moment before sending a text or posting online. Take that moment to think about how those who receive her message might interpret it. Encourage her to consider what she is really saying and to whom, especially when using dramatic language and sending messages out to the whole audience of her social network. She, and all of us, can learn from the tragedy of this case. As we negotiate the digital environment, we must understand that words can hurt others, words can change the way people feel about themselves and others, and, in some cases, words can kill.

Enjoy your media and use them responsibly,

The Mediatrician®

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