November 14, 2007

Taking responsibility

Posted in Children and adolescents, Mental health, Musings at 4:08 pm by The Lizard Queen

I just came across this article via Shakesville. The basic story is this: a young teenage girl, Megan, met a boy on myspace. Her mother monitored her myspace use, but found nothing objectionable about the boy, nor anything objectionable in their correspondence. The boy started saying nasty things to Megan, which culminated in her running up to her room and hanging herself.

That would be bad enough. Megan suffered from depression and ADD, and one of the symptoms of the latter is poor impulse control. The combination, in this case, was deadly. The mother is racked with guilt; she monitored Megan’s myspace use, but still feels like there’s more she could have done.

But the worst is still to come. The boy didn’t exist. A family down the street had created the persona; the following is information from a related police report, with the mother’s name redacted and replaced with (She):

“(She) said she, with the help of temporary employee named —— constructed a profile of ‘good looking’ male on ‘my space’ in order to ‘find out what Megan (Meier’s daughter) was saying on-line’ about her daughter. (She) explained the communication between the fake male profile and Megan was aimed at gaining Megan’s confidence and finding out what Megan felt about her daughter and other people.

“(She) stated she, her daughter and (the temporary employee) all typed, read and monitored the communication between the fake male profile and Megan . . .”

(She) stated she knew ‘arguments’ had broken out between Megan and others on ‘my space.’ (She) felt this incident contributed to Megan’s suicide, but she did not feel ‘as guilty’ because at the funeral she found out ‘Megan had tried to commit suicide before.'”

First of all, I don’t think it’s ever possible to place blame on anything other than mental illness when it comes to someone committing suicide*. That said, though, the actions of the adults in creating and maintaining the fake myspace account disgust me. And the fact that the woman ostensibly felt less guilty because someone told her that Megan had attempted suicide in the past? “Utterly reprehensible” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Do I think the people behind the “Josh” myspace account caused Megan’s suicide? No. Do I think they should take responsibility for the role they played in the events leading up to her suicide? Yes. Very much so. I think they should stand up and say, “This is what I did. Perhaps I didn’t cause Megan’s death, but I contributed to the erosion of her sense of self-worth, and for that I will forever be sorry. I furthermore regret that I did not set a good example of how an adult should behave for my teenage daughter.”

Fat chance. That’s just not the kind of world we live in today. More on that in a moment.

In the comments both on the story itself and at Shakesville, numerous people blame myspace (and, subtly or not so subtly, Megan’s parents for letter her use it). “I’ll never let my child use myspace,” they say. “The internet is for adults,” they say, “and if kids can’t handle the shit that gets shoveled online, then they shouldn’t be allowed to go online.” I have a question for these people: If someone tells your child lies and your child believes them, who is at fault? Your child, for believing them? You, for allowing your child to be exposed to lies? The medium through which the lies were told? Or the person who told the lies? I can’t help but imagine myself in this situation. I’ve made friends online before. Let’s say I, today, at the age of 27, built up an online friendship, only to have the erstwhile friend start saying horrid things to me about the kind of person I am. In fact, something very similar happened to me within the past few months, except that the person casting aspersions on my character was real, and was saying these things to others, in person. Still, I think it’s a reasonable comparison, and even for me, fourteen years older than Megan was, the experience has been devastating. I can imagine that if I didn’t have the fabulous support network I have, if I didn’t have wee and not-so-wee beasties around me all the time so I can indulge myself in things like the joy of belly-scritching (for example, I spent big chunks of the weekend playing with and being shadowed by Tiwa’s friend “Gid-ee-un,” which was sweet, and now the kitties are curled up adorably together at my feet, a pleasant welcome-home), if I hadn’t developed a variety of coping strategies over the years, I might well have decided to harm myself just as Megan did. So, again, myspace isn’t really the important part of the equation.

Again, what really struck me about this story was the apparent lack of regret on the part of the adults who created the fake myspace account. I can’t imagine thinking that was okay in the first place, much less failing to conclude “yeah, in retrospect that was a really terrible idea” after the fact. And the situation resonates with me because “why can’t people just take responsibility for the things they do?” has been a refrain of mine for years. Here’s something I wrote over four years ago:

Thirty-some-odd 12th grade teenagers in Illinois beat up a bunch of 11th grade girls, dumping paint and feces on them and sending five of the girls to the hospital, at what was supposed to be a powder puff football game. Thirty-two people were suspended from school for ten days, a number which was lowered to thirty-one after the school realized it made a mistake in identifying one of the boys. Several of the teens filed lawsuits to have the suspensions overturned, and one girl’s lawyer said that the school “exceeded its clear authority,” and that the girl “was punished for conduct which the school has accepted and tolerated for 23 years.”

Obviously, the fact that the school hasn’t punished this behavior up to this point makes it acceptable behavior. Of course, it wasn’t on national news before this point. Girls weren’t sent to the hospital before this point. Perhaps the school was lax before this point, but I think it absolutely has a right, at least, to suspend these teens. This girl, along with all the others, was doing something that she knew, or at least should have known, was wrong. You don’t beat people up, especially when they’re defenseless. You don’t throw feces at people. You don’t make people eat dirt. Aren’t these lessons we all learned in preschool or kindergarten? What is wrong with these kids that they can’t just say, “Oops, I just got carried away, caught up in the moment. I’m sorry.”

And what the hell is wrong with their parents that they condone these lawsuits? It’s undermining the authority of the school, it’s undermining the authority of the LAW**, and it’s just plain stupid, in my opinion.

Another example is the fact that both as a student and a teacher I’ve observed a number of people who did poorly on a paper or exam, and rather than being disappointed in themselves and/or deciding to do what was necessary to do better in the future (study more, come to office hours, go to the writing center, etc.), they argue with the instructor or exam administrator. Yes, sometimes instructors and exam administrators can make mistakes, and I have no problem with people pointing those mistakes out and asking for reconsideration accordingly, but the sense of entitlement evident in most of the arguments I’ve heard for why so-and-so should have gotten a better grade on this essay or should have passed that exam really grates on me.

(And don’t get me started on the idea that the GOP is the party of personal responsibility.)

Nothing can bring Megan back; nothing can ease her parents’ pain. Still, I can’t imagine the fact that there are adults who are refusing to admit they did anything wrong is helping any.

*I see that this is a debatable point.  There could be extenuating circumstances that might cause a mentally healthy person to kill him or herself.  However, in cases where mental illness isn’t the number-one cause, I’m hard-pressed to imagine someone could point at a single action someone other than the person who killed herself took and say “that’s what made her kill herself.”

**I feel the need to point out that I would never advocate blind deference to authority, scholastic or legal. However, this wasn’t a case of civil disobedience of an unjust law or policy, but rather a situation in which people were complaining about being held responsible for harming others.


1 Comment »

  1. Evil Bender said,

    Even if this hadn’t resulted in tragedy for Megan, I’m with you in wondering what these adults were thinking. If the caricature of parents is telling their children to solve their own problems, this is exactly the opposite: electronically spying on their daughter’s “enemies”? What a wonderful way to warp her personality and make her dependent.

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