The case of 13-year old Megan Meier taking her own life after being taunted and harassed online has showcased a conflicting and confused picture of the potential dangers of social networking sites and what should be done about them. A court in LA has indicted a 49 year-old, Lori Drew, mother of Megan's friend and the creator of the bogus account of a sixteen-year old boy, "Josh" for defrauding MySpace and violating its Terms of Service.
"Whether we characterize this tragic case as 'cyber-bullying,' cyber abuse or illegal computer access, it should serve as a reminder that our children use the internet for social interaction and that technology has altered the way they conduct their daily activities," said Salvador Hernandez, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI in Los Angeles. "As adults, we must be sensitive to the potential dangers posed by the use of the Internet by our children."
By all accounts, Megan Meier had more than her share of teenage angst to deal with. She struggled with her weight, showed signs of attention-deficit disorder and took medication for depression. Her family was friends with the Drew family who lived on the same street in their suburban, St. Louis neighborhood. Megan attended the same middle school as the Drews' daughter and they had even vacationed together.
Then there was a falling out. Lori Drew wanted to find out if Megan had been spreading rumors about her daughter. Instead of confronting Megan and her parents, Lori Drew did something unthinkable before the advent of social networking sites. She created a false profile on MySpace of a boy called "Josh " - a lonely 16-year old boy who had recently moved into the neighborhood, was from a broken home and was being homeschooled. And Josh's profile came with a (fake) photo, interests and an interest in Megan. They became "friends" and Megan later "fell in love" with her online buddy whom she had never met.
Then the messages from Josh turned sour. He wrote that he wanted to break up with her "because I hear you're mean to your friends". It turns out Lori Drew had brought in her daughter and an 18-year old employee of Drew's to turn up the heat. Then others, some of who had known Megan at school, but had moved away, also sent in nasty messages and bulletins broadcasting slurs and slander to the cyber world. That's when Megan's world ended.
A local prosecutor in the ensuing investigation found no state law had been violated. Missouri state legislators took up the cause and drafted a bill to ban online harassment. And now we have reports that the feds are investigating whether use of a false identity could be considered Internet fraud under federal statutes. While this might vindicate the cruel loss of a daughter, what would action of this sort do to the widespread use of anonymous names, profiles and even avatars that populate the web? And will we see calls for a new Megan's Law?
It would be wise to react cautiously. The anonymous nature of the web allowed this elaborate hoax to take place. Just as worrying, online vigilantes used the cloak of anonymity to launch a campaign of harassment, threats and insults directed at Lori Drew and her family that continues to this day. The online "mob" wants justice and will use satellite imagery, database searches, IM alerts and text messaging to gather information, mobilize support and enact their own revenge. The Drews have gone into hiding, their livelihood wrecked and their daughter too upset to return to school. The Meier's marriage has broken down under the strain and Megan's father lives alone in the house where his daughter died.
And yet, we value anonymity in the online and offline world for a host of reasons. For centuries, authors have used nom de plume to disguise their real identity. Whistle blowers and anonymous sources have brought down the likes of Enron and the Nixon presidency. Indeed, we ask our own children to be anonymous online, not to use their real names, photos of themselves or other identifying material for their own protection. It may be true that anonymity may cause normally rational and civil individuals to act out and flame others in ways they would never do in real life encounters. Much like road rage. But the value, worth and, at times, necessity of being anonymous has helped to shape our modern lives and democracies in a way that is hard to imagine doing without. Unless, of course, we want to follow the Chinese model.
So what can we learn from this awful story? One thing that is clear is that we all need to address our collective responsibility about our and our children's actions on the web. While we teach our kids not to give out their personal information or to engage in risky behavior, we parents have a mountain to climb to get a hold of our duties of care in this new online landscape. Not only must we immerse ourselves in the new technologies and feel comfortable using them, but parents have to take the time to get familiar with the social networking sites, chat rooms, IM tools and texting language which is the new lingua franca of the 21st Century.
That a parent of a 13-year old girl instigated this tragic set of events is heart wrenching and despicable. Her irresponsible and reckless behavior led to a chain of events that got out of control - magnified and distributed by others acting in an equally irresponsible way.
What we need in response to this and other equally alarming cases is a new culture of responsibility where government, industry, schools, parents and the kids themselves share differing and overlapping responsibilities for what happens online so that Megan's untimely death is not repeated, nor the emergence of a cyber lynch mob ever needed again.