This Is Us

Middle Schoolers Are More Suicidal Than Ever. Is Too Much Privacy to Blame?

Why parents should think twice before granting kids absolute digital privacy

Anastasia Basil
Published in
8 min readSep 22, 2020

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Dark photo of a young girl on a smartphone.
Photo: Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia/Getty Images

So, I had the talk with my 11-year-old daughter. (Not that talk, I had that talk a couple years ago.) She stared, unblinking, as I explained how sextortion works. I began with the story of Aaron Coleman. Five years ago, when Aaron was 14 years old, he tormented middle school girls online. His actions were so hurtful that a 6th-grade girl attempted to take her own life. She told the Kansas City Star that Coleman harassed her daily, insisting she kill her “fat” self. After obtaining a nude photo of another girl, Aaron threatened to send it to her friends and family unless she sent him more. When she refused, he shared the photo. Aaron, now 19, won the Democratic primary in August for a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives. As stories from his past surfaced, he quickly resigned as nominee. A few days later, he rejoined the race, stating on Twitter that he didn’t expect to be judged under a national microscope for his actions in middle school.

“But why was there a naked picture of the girl?” This was the question my daughter asked first. It was easy for her to make sense of cruel behavior like Coleman’s because, as she put it, “he’s a bully,” but the victim’s actions didn’t line up. “Why would she take that kind of picture?”

I wanted to approach the issue through science, not morality — this is less good kid versus bad kid and more underdeveloped frontal cortex versus smartphone and social media. In Coleman’s case, it appears his abusive behavior continued through high school and beyond, which makes it difficult to dismiss his early actions as impulsive errors. But to answer my daughter’s question, I focused on the victims: kids who are blackmailed by adults on social media (as in the horrific Instagram blackmail of 13-year-old Patty Alatorre), and kids who buckle under pressure from peers to send sexually explicit selfies, often referred to as a “Romeo and Juliet” situation.

Daniel J. Siegel, author of Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, describes the adolescent brain as all gas pedal and no brakes. Starting early in adolescence…

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