Amanda Todd’s tragic suicide in British Columbia earlier this month is playing out through the familiar trope of bullying. As is often the case, it’s much more complicated than that.
In a wrenching video, Amanda described herself as bullied. She was taunted at school and ate lunch alone. She said she made a mistake by hooking up with a boy at her school who had a girlfriend, and that she was ganged up on, and eventually punched for it. All of this sounds like an ugly example of slut shaming, and to state the obvious, that’s bad. And it’s a behavior we need to speak out against—though I continue to think the best way to do that is through community-wide prevention efforts, not by making examples of individual teenagers.
That’s especially relevant in this case, because as she tells it, Amanda’s troubles started not with other kids, but with an adult male stalker. She says that a year before the school bullying, she started chatting with a man via webcam. He persuaded her to flash her chest, took a photo, and then posted it online. People she knew saw it, and even though she moved and changed schools, she said the photo followed her, ruining her reputation wherever she went. “I can never get that photo back,” she wrote. “It’s out there forever.”
Why don’t the headlines about Amanda Todd say “Stalked Teen Commits Suicide” rather than “Bullied Teen”? This isn’t about semantics: It’s about understanding what appears to have propelled this girl on a terrible downward spiral, which, based on what we know, included drug and alcohol abuse. Clearly she was vulnerable to depression, the major trigger for suicide—substance abuse is also a risk factor—and that’s another part of the story that’s not getting enough attention. The man who posted Amanda’s picture online and hounded her reminds me of Lori Drew. She’s the Missouri mother who created a fake Internet profile for a boy named Josh, which was then used to manipulate a girl named Megan Meier, an on-again-off-again friend of Drew’s daughter who also took her own life. That story too was framed in terms of cyberbullying and led to a wave of legislation, much of it directed at schools. But in both of these cases it appears that the real victimizer was a creepy scary adult, not a teen bully, and that whatever happened in school was secondary to the damage that adult did.
I don’t want to feed into Internet predator panic. It is, thankfully, rare for adults to seduce children online. And I’m not sure what to think about this confusing story of how Anonymous tried to out Amanda’s stalker and may have gotten the wrong man. I’m glad the Canadian police are investigating. I hope when they’re finished, they can give us a fuller picture of what happened to Amanda.
One more thing: Amanda’s video has gotten 3 million hits on YouTube. It’s stark and moving: I felt that watching it. But I’m worried about the effect it could have on other vulnerable and depressed girls. When suicide testimonies like this get an enormous amount of sympathetic attention, they can attract other kids in a disturbing way. This is the documented phenomenon of copycat suicide, which prevention experts worry about. Some of them have voiced such concerns in this case, too.