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New Jersey Employment and Civil Rights Attorney Discusses Teen Sexting & The Suicide of Hope Witsell

I'm starting to sound like a broken record. This isn't just a product of my age and fast-approaching senility. I seem to being singing the same song in blog after blog. I suppose that's because I see the same issues over and over, but I have to admit, I'm getting tired of it. Or more properly, I guess what I should say is: I'm getting tired of having to address these issues.

I remember being in my twenties when the internet was first powering up. It held such promise. As a long term sci-fi fan from way back, I always saw the coming dawn of the internet (which was predicted back in the late 70's and 80's to those of us who were "in the know" as geeks) with great enthusiasm. I saw it as an opportunity for people to communicate ideas, information, play games (of course!), advance research, share news, and civilize one another. I thought it would be the dawn of a new age.

Now, I realize that I'm going to sound like a bitter old man - and I am - but that's not what the internet has proven to be. Granted, it's good for playing games, it's good for sharing ideas (including the vast majority of fairly worthless ideas that people think are worth sharing), and it's good for sharing research. Scientists do use it to further research and I think that to a very small degree (at least "small" proportionate to its negative impacts which we'll reach in a moment) it's had a very slight "civilizing" effect on people. On some people. Not most people.

In recent Blogs, I've talked about how the passive-aggressive nature of electronic communication runs entirely counter to human evolution, which was a slow trial and error process over several hundred thousand years (several million if you count our pre-human ancestors). We were evolved to look at one another in the eye, to communicate with one another using a host of signals that are neither conscious nor verbal, and we were built with restraints on communicating in a way which was counterproductive. Most people have a conscience, to one degree or another, and most people are unconsciously applying that conscience most of the time. When we're looking at the person we're going to hurt or damage with our communication, we tend to have an inbuilt barrier and filter. Not always, and not everyone, but enough that the civilization has managed to progress over ten thousand years to quite an advance state. Mostly, people don't want to hurt other people, and when we see we're about to, we tend not to, without great cause. It's why we have a civilization at all.

Regrettably, however, that civilization has now birthed electronic forms of communication which are destroying us. Tweeting (which is aptly named since it is only for twits), FaceBook, and a host of others, all contribute to passive aggressiveness, non-accountability (as long as you don't have to look at the person your filters don't operate and you could hurt them with a great deal less accountability), a communication of literally and utterly meaningless information (updating one's FaceBook Page with all sorts of drivel no one needs to know), etc. Forgetting for a moment about the constant spyware, adware, pop-ups, ridiculous advertisements and the entirely draconian and/or Orwellian pressure that Google is able to assert over how people now do business ("think about your SEO content or else!"), the internet and electronic communication is killing people.

It's so easy to cut and paste pornographic material onto FaceBook photos and then spread knowingly false rumors about people. It's so easy to make people look how they don't look, appear to be acting how they don't act, appear to be believing how they don't believe and doing it in a way that instantly publishes this information to dozens, hundreds or thousands without any accountability, responsibility, restraint, or damage control.

Hope Witsell is only the latest casualty in the long line of teens who feel cornered by the combination of bullying (which has always been with us and always will) with technology (that allows bullies far more instant access to a far greater audience and far less personal accountability for what they do). The internet tweeting, sexting (also another form of passive aggressive form of communication without accountability) and similar weapons turned to evil ends robbed her of her childhood, and then her life.

Did she herself send a topless photo of herself to a boy in hopes of gaining his attention? She did.

Was this unwise to do when she was only 13? It was. But think back to when you were 13. How many wise things did you do? How many unwise things did you refrain from doing? When we're somewhere between 11 and 14, we're all sociopaths. Our brains and bodies are growing far faster than our consciences and our social maturity. We develop the physical, intellectual, verbal and other capacities to do great harm to ourselves and others without any of the mature accountability that will later set in during the middle and later years of high school.

It's no accident that almost every case of school bias/harassment we see is in middle school and neither in high school nor in elementary school.

When I was thirteen, it was unimaginable that there would be a topless photo of a thirteen year old girl making the rounds. When I was thirteen, in order to produce such a picture, someone had to photograph the thirteen year old (even if it was the thirteen year old herself awkwardly holding one of the awkward cameras that were around in those days), that photo had to be developed by someone else, who might likely call the parents or the police, and then that photo had to be handed to someone else.

Aside from all the people who might intervene to stop that process, time would have intervened as well. The thirteen year old would have had a great deal of time to regret the fact that the photo was taken and a great deal of time to decide, when it finally came back into her hands from the photo booth, that she was simply going to destroy it. Time is our friend when we have to evaluate the consequences of what we do.

The internet destroys time. Everything happens the moment the brain decides to do it. Snap the photo, hit send, and so much for time. Taking a picture of yourself with one of the "smart" phones (placed to dumb use) allows you to do it yourself, hit a button, and then it's done. It's done irretrievably, permanently, and, we now see more and more, tragically and lethally.

Hope Witsell would not have killed herself if she were thirteen years old when I was thirteen years old, in 1979. Hope Witsell would not have had the means to take a topless photo of herself and would not, I am certain, have had the courage to ask someone else to do it for her. Even if someone else did, I'm sure that she would never have had the courage to drop the film off. Even if she did, I'm sure that the photo booth would have reported it to the police or would have reported it to Hope's family. It was a different time. Even if they didn't, and they gave Hope the picture, I'm fairly certain that Hope, having had all of the time in the world, would have decided not to share the picture with her boyfriend.

And even if all of that isn't true, and all of those speed bumps were passed over, it was only one damn picture.

Thank you, internet. Thank you, cell phones and thank you, technology. You didn't get us to Mars (like I hoped you would), you didn't civilize the world (like I hoped you would), but you are managing to put humanity's worst traits on display without any of the filters nature and time carefully carved into us to assure us of our species survival.

Hope is only one member of a growing statistic.

If you're a parent, forget privacy, forget respect, and forget maturity. Don't worry about your kids not being "cool" if they don't have the latest gadgets and the latest access to the social media. Shut that shit down and save their lives. Tell them that they're free to do whatever they like once they are out of your home and out from under your financial wherewithal (which means even if they're eighteen, if you're still paying for college and graduate school, use the leverage). Once they're fully adult, and not thirteen, and they want to do something foolish, they're much more able to handle the consequences of it if you've done your job. At thirteen, however, the best parents in the world can't save someone from the immediate death spiral that the internet can cause when it's improperly used and when a picture like the one Hope took "goes viral."

As a Civil Liberties Lawyer, I often eschew any discussion of censorship or shutting down access to information, since these are the tools of an autocratic and dictatorial state. They are the tools of repression. But as I get older, I'm having trouble trusting my fellow man to responsibly use open and free access to information. I'm very conflicted about this, and if you're a thinking and sensitive person, whether or not you're a parent, you should be conflicted too.

In the meanwhile, social media is not your friend. It is a tool, largely, that fosters advertising, wasted time, useless information, vainglorious boasting, and, here, torture, cyber-bullying, torment and tragedy.

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