When grown-ups turn cyberbullies

Teenage girl takes her own life after receiving taunts from a made-up boy on MySpace, raising legal, ethical, and journalistic questions and offering a cautionary tale for parents.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
2 min read

It's an unimaginably sad story.

Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl who has struggled with issues of self-esteem and depression, is greeted on MySpace by an older boy. He strikes up a flirtation with her over a series of weeks. Then, inexplicably, he starts sending accusatory messages, then nasty ones.

Megan, crushed by the turn of events, takes her own life.

Further twisting the tragedy is the fact that the boy wasn't a boy at all. Rather, he was the creation of adults, including the mother of one of Megan's friends, a girl with whom she had a falling out.

The story--I am summarizing others' reporting here--is now a year old, but was poignantly told this past weekend in the local paper of the Missouri community where it happened.

It has unleashed a torrent of debate, debate over whether the adults committed a crime, whether laws should be changed and whether the newspaper should have named the people involved. It named the girl who committed suicide, but left out the names of those who created the fictitious boy, citing a desire to protect that family's child.

But although the paper chose not to name the family, there were some clues in the story that led bloggers and others to try to deduce the name of the adults who created the fake profile and taunted the girl.

The legal, moral and journalistic issues are significant and many. But to me, the most important lesson is the one for parents. Social-networking sites are incredibly powerful. They can connect us quickly with the world. But like all powerful tools, they can also do irreparable harm. Sometimes Internet speed is too fast, even for good parents, to keep up with.

Clearly, adolescence has always been a tough time and bullies and taunts are nothing new. But we have created a new world for our children and we must be prepared to help them navigate their way through it.

Too many of them aren't making it on their own. Every 16 minutes, someone in the U.S. dies by suicide. Often it's a youngster trying to make sense of the world. Today, on National Survivors of Suicide Day, I encourage everyone, especially those in the technology industry, to examine how we can make our world--virtual and real--a safer one.