On July 12, 2014, 17-year-old Michelle Carter repeatedly encouraged her 18-year-old boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to kill himself. He was in his truck in a K-Mart parking lot, pumping the cab full of carbon monoxide gas. When he stepped out of the truck, she ordered him by text to get back in, which he did.
She was on the phone with him when he died. She did not call for help.
On June 16, 2017, a Massachusetts judge found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
In a similar case, a Dairy Queen manager in Missouri was arrested for and charged with second degree involuntary manslaughter. She relentlessly bullied one of her employees – a high school student – until he died by suicide on December 21, 2016.
These two cases raise serious concerns in the suicide prevention community and for free speech advocates. In addition, they have implications for parents already having difficulty parenting teens in the era of social media.
There is no one reason for suicide. While bullying may be a contributing factor, suicide is a complex behavior with many contributing factors. In the Carter case, Mr. Roy exhibited warning signs through his texts to Ms. Carter and to his family. This doesn’t mean his death was inevitable, only that there were many other factors at work.
When it comes to bullying as a risk factor for suicide, there is evidence that bullies die by suicide more frequently than their victims. Those who are both victims and perpetrators are at highest risk. Ms. Carter’s defense team cited her own mental health history and the fact that she was taking Celexa (an antidepressant) at the time of Mr. Roy’s death. While this does not excuse her actions, it is important to consider the context in which her behavior occurred and how her actions and Mr. Roy’s death might affect her in the long term.
The verdict in the Carter case is more troubling because it challenges the notion that the only person responsible for a suicide is the one who took his own life. The judge found that Ms. Carter’s command to get back in the car and not calling for help caused his death. While these may have affected the outcome, he was the only one responsible for his death.
Legal experts believe this verdict may set a dangerous precedent. It is being interpreted to mean that words alone can be deadly weapons, at least if uttered with wanton and reckless disregard for the outcome. One expert believes this will extend to physicians offering advice on end-of-life decisions.
It is important to consider this new precedent in the context of social media. The news is rife with stories about kids who die by suicide after they are bullied online. If kids can be held responsible for others’ actions based on texting or posts to Snapchat, Twitter, or via text, parents will have to be more intrusive in their kids’ social media lives.
This runs counter to much of the advice many experts give to parents regarding their kids’ online behavior.
Families who have established an appropriate set of clear rules for social behavior should be able to grant kids a proportional amount of on- and offline privacy.
In practical terms – even if this verdict was different – it is important to teach your kid that everything that happens online is as real and permanent as what happens in real life.
Here is a good and simple rule: If you would not say what you are thinking to the person while looking her in the eye, do not post it online.
By extension: If you would not say this thing about this person when he could hear you say it, do not post it online.
If you have observed your kid’s behavior in real life and are comfortable that she knows right from wrong and that she would not mistreat others online, enacting these rules will encourage good online citizenship. You can feel comfortable giving her some online privacy, but make sure to check in frequently. Even if she pushes back or ignores you, she hears your concern and appreciates it. Set consequences for online violations of your expectations and stick to them. Most importantly, talk to her about what she sees and does online and set a good example for her in your own on- and offline behavior.
Unfortunately, this verdict warrants more care and control than usual, at least until the appeals process in Massachusetts is complete. As you take greater care, keep in mind the unprecedented nature of the judge’s finding in the Carter case, the low frequency of suicide attempts, and the fact that suicide is preventable if you heed the warning signs and get appropriate help immediately.
If you are concerned about your kid – or if your kid is concerned about someone – help is available via the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or by texting “Hello” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.
Shane G. Owens, Ph.D., ABPP is an authority on college mental health practice and policy, including college readiness and behavioral risk management. As a college administrator and in private practice, he works primarily with adolescents and emerging adults. He is a board-certified behavioral and cognitive psychologist.
Follow Dr. Owens on Twitter: @drshaneowens
For more helpful information, visit: drshaneowens.com