We’re excited to announce we have a new content creator to focus on parenting issues. For years we have tried to serve parents of fringe kids or parents on the fringe and we are fortunate to have Patti Gibbons join our writing team and to share her hard won wisdom with all of us. (Click here for Patti’s bio)

Her first post is an important one and addresses a growing concern among parents. Take a few minutes to read it and share your thoughts with her. She would love to connect.

After Text Message Case, Words Matter Even More

By Patti Gibbons

Two teenagers meet while their families vacation in the same place. A friendship develops and the teens discover their homes are relatively close, about an hour apart. They connect on social media and exchange texts and messages about their lives, their families, their problems. Though they rarely saw each other in person, they called themselves boyfriend and girlfriend.

That all sounds pretty normal these days, right?

Pervasive use of technology and social media allowed this relationship to develop as the teens supported one another through family struggles, serious personal issues like depression and eating disorders, and the ups and downs of teenage life.

But, this is the beginning of a story that ends in a charge of involuntary manslaughter. The weapon? The words typed into those messages.

As parents and adults who care about the lives of our children, that is a stunning statement. The words of one teenager to another were found to have made her responsible for his death by suicide.

This turns up the heat on the conversations about technology use directly, and tangentially about social media, cyber-bullying, privacy, and even the First Amendment. It should give us pause. A long pause.

On June 16, 2017, a Massachusetts judge found Michelle Carter, now 20, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter following a trial that revealed that she, then a teen, engaged in what prosecutors called “wanton and reckless conduct” sent text messages urging Conrad Roy III to take his own life at age 18. She has not yet been sentenced as of this writing.

Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz decided the case in a bench trial, saying, “Ms. Carter’s actions, and also her failure to act, where she had a self-created duty to Mr. Roy, since she had put him into that toxic environment, constituted, each and all, wanton and reckless conduct.” [NPR]

In her texts, she urged him to act on his suicidal ideation, “You just have to do it,” one text said. After his death, she organized a fundraiser in Roy’s name, presenting herself as an anti-suicide advocate, posting on Facebook, “Even though I could not save my boyfriend’s life, I want to put myself out there to try to save as many other lives as possible.”

It is clear from the accounts presented at trial that Carter and Roy each had troubled histories with depression and other mental health concerns about which they shared with one another openly. This situation turns on both the words she said and the actions she failed to take. [New York Times]

As parents and adults who care about them, what can we take away from this case?

First, we can be diligent in teaching our children that the words they say matter and that they will be held accountable, perhaps even legally, for what they say. From this case, in particular, we learn a new limit to the First Amendment right of free speech. Not only can we not yell fire in a crowded theatre, we can’t encourage a person to take their own life.

Second, we can be diligent in communicating to our children that they, along with each and every human being, has intrinsic worth and value. There is no person they will ever meet in person or interact with online to whom harsh, demeaning, insulting words need to be said, whether we like them or agree with them or not. This is especially true for social media where there is a harsh and pressured teen culture of comparison, evaluation, and judgement. This is contrary to the prevailing culture online today, even among adults. Perhaps we can all grow this way?

Third, we can culture open dialog with the children in our lives about using their online presence for good. Talking to our kids about finding positive words to use to influence the world, be more authentic, and impact their friends in ways that give life.

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