Parenting
Parenting

Sexting Hysteria Leads to 13-Year-Old Hope Witsell's Suicide

| by Reason Foundation

Yet more evidence for teens that "sexting" really can ruin your life. Not because of the dirty pictures, but because of the horrible things adults will do to you when they discover them. For your own good, of course.

Today's heartbreaking example is Hope Witsell, a 13-year-old Florida girl driven to suicide after she was caught sending a topless cell phone photo of herself to a crush. When her school administrators learned of the photo, they suspended her, even though her sending it had nothing to do with the school.

Witsell's classmates harassed her, calling her "whore" and "slut" in the hallways, apparently with little notice, interest, or intervention from school officials. Witsell's parents also administered some tough love, grounding her for the summer and banishing her from the Internet and her cell phone. The poor kid showed her boobs to a boy, and she was banished from her school, her friends, and the outside world.

With all due respect to Witsell's parents, who are obviously grieving, it's the adults in Sylvia's life who need the tough love here. These overblown reactions to what's really little more than a technologically enhanced version of the age-old game of "I'll show you yours if you show me mine" really do ruin kids' lives, be it by saddling them with a criminal record, securing them a spot on a sex offender list, instilling in their heads that they're some sort of outcast pervert, or in Hope Witsell's case—Jesus—driving them to kill themselves.

I found this story via a link to the blog Sylvia Has a Problem. The blogger, "Sylvia" I presume, points to coverage of Witsell's death on the Today Show and rightly points out the most infuriating and disheartening part of all of this: Media coverage of the case has put the brunt of the blame on the 13-year-old kid herself, and her "impetuous move" to tread in the dark netherworld of "sexting."

That of course means the likely take-away narrative from Today Show viewers learning of Witsell's death last week will be that we need to crack down harder on kids who engage in sexting. You know, "to prevent more Hope Witsells." Which really only increases the odds we'll see more Hope Witsells.

Kids make mistakes. It's up to the adults in their lives—from parents to school administrators to law enforcement authorities—to show some sense of proportionality and perspective in reacting to those mistakes.

It's a dubious proposition that sending a couple dirty pictures to a boyfriend is going to ruin a young girl's life. But the hysterical, puritanical reactions of the authority figures around her sure as hell can.

Be sure to read Nancel Rommelmann's terrific report on another outrageous case of adults persecuting sexting teens from our July 2009 issue.