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

Dark photo of a young girl on a smartphone.
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 and peaking midway through, there’s increased activity in the neural circuits that utilize dopamine. Siegel explains that dopamine’s job is to encourage us to seek reward — it’s a motivator, which is good, except when the motivator is a really loud, freakishly excited coach. The surplus of dopamine causes the teen brain to focus solely on the reward, which means teens don’t always notice the potential of a negative outcome. A golden retriever happily chasing a tennis ball into traffic comes to mind.

My daughter plays basketball, so I used a game analogy to explain why a kid might send an inappropriate photo: Maybe a boy she likes sends her a photo of himself and then says something like,“Why won’t you send me one? I thought you liked me.” He swears on his dog’s life that he would never show it to anyone. When she says no, he stops talking to her. Remember, she really likes this boy, and now he’s done with her. The dopamine in her brain is shouting: There are two seconds left on the clock, hit this three-pointer to win the game! Just Do It! She takes the shot.

While it seems inconceivable to my daughter that she would ever do such a thing, I explain that her brain is no exception: “This doesn’t mean your brain will force you to do something you don’t want to do, it just means you might do something impulsively because it seems great in the moment, but isn’t so great in the long run. Sort of like when Peperoncini chases bees.” (Peperoncini is our young dachshund mix who’s drawn to all the wrong things.)

A New York Times article reports that while both boys and girls send nude images, boys are nearly four times more likely to pressure girls to send photos as girls are to pressure boys. Most teens are unaware of the legal consequences for sharing or possessing a sexually explicit photo, even if it’s a selfie. In 23 states, breaking this law as a minor can result in jail time and mandatory registration as a sex offender.

When I told my daughter that I wished the parents (Coleman’s and his victim’s) had done something to stop the harassment, she replied: “The parents probably didn’t know it was happening.” My point exactly. Our job is not only to protect our kids, but to protect others from them. How can we do that if we don’t know who they’re interacting with and how that interaction is playing out? One father I spoke with said he felt uncomfortable monitoring his middle schooler’s online behavior: “It feels wrong, like I’m reading her diary.” He did admit to concerns, saying his daughter spends too much time on her phone, but he doesn’t think she would ever do anything wrong: “She’s a good kid.” His comments remind me of a story from my undergrad days as a philosophy major. In the Republic, Plato tells us about a guy named Gyges. Everybody loves him, he’s the Tom Hanks of 4th Century Athens BCE. One day he’s out with his sheep and finds an old ring that grants him the power of invisibility. So off he goes to kill the king, marry the queen, and take over the kingdom. While invisible, he does things he would never do in person. Sound familiar? Millennia later, we all say and do things we might not say and do if we weren’t hiding behind a glowing screen.

Smartphones are not diaries; the very nature of the words send, share, and post negates the notion of privacy. Suicide rates for children in the United States are the highest on record. The rate for girls between the ages of 10 and 19 went up 70% between 2006 and 2016. The rate for middle school girls tripled. The rise correlates with the advent of a hyperconnected society: Facebook and Twitter were launched in 2006, and the first iPhone was released in 2007. Do we really need to wait another 10 years for studies to prove causation? Sophocles warned, 2,500 years ago, that, “Nothing that is vast enters into the life of mortals without a curse.” Over time, as we adapt to a hyperconnected environment, we’ll mitigate the adverse effects. But right now, we’re all still driving our Model-T Roadsters into trees.

The question is, do we leave kids alone online (in a Hobbesian state of social discord), or do we supervise while their frontal cortex is developing? Football coaches stand on the sidelines; teachers don’t shut 8th graders in a classroom with textbooks and say, “I’ll be in my office if anyone feels like talking.” It takes years of guided instruction to embody the rules and skills of any sport or subject. Look how adults behave online — we lack the ability to engage in civil discourse; we have zero dialogue skills and rarely show mutual respect in comment threads. Yet we expect adolescents to “figure it out” on their own? After enduring months of humiliating posts and texts from students at school, 12-year-old Mallory Grossman ended the torment by taking her own life. Her story should be unique, but it isn’t. Even Aaron Coleman deserves pity; he was 12 when he began a campaign of digital harassment that went undetected by adults. His parents (and the parents of the students he harassed) must have had a “hands-off” policy when it came to their children’s devices.

There is no bad kid or good kid — there is only a developing brain. The sooner we stop evaluating adolescents through a moral filter and start understanding their neural development, the sooner we can bring these horrific suicide rates down. This isn’t about kids making better choices, it’s about parents making better choices. A smartphone isn’t a diary that holds your child’s most private thoughts; it’s a public arena filled with spectators, and we’re the only ones without a ticket.

As for privacy, there’s an upsetting conversation between New York Times journalist Gabriel Dance and neuroscientist Sam Harris that everyone should hear. The podcast episode can be found here and is rightfully titled, “The Worst Epidemic.” Dance reports that law enforcement agencies are underfunded and understaffed, rendering them incapable of investigating 70 million images and videos of child pornography that live online. The correct (but less common term) is child sexual abuse material (CSAM). Currently, investigators can focus only on material featuring infants and toddlers. This alone should stop every one of us in our tracks, especially those who demand absolute encryption of all online data and interactions. Harris rightfully notes: “Human beings have never had an absolute right to privacy in the real world. There is no room in your house that could hold all your secrets, and never be unlocked by a third party no matter what you’ve done in the world. And yet, somehow, in digital space we’ve convinced ourselves that we need these rooms.”

We should think twice before insisting our actions online deserve absolute privacy. And we should think twice before granting our children absolute privacy online.

What are some things can parents do? Consider using a service like Bark to monitor your kids’ devices. (I’m sure there are similar companies worth looking into as well.) The service uses an algorithm to identify depression, self-harm, adult content, threats of violence — basically, all the stuff parents need to know about. If you prefer, be open about it and say something like: “Since you’re a minor, there’s technology on your phone that monitors what happens. I won’t be scrolling your phone but if anything pops up that’s harmful or hurtful, I’ll receive an alert.” If your kid says, “Why don’t you trust me?” You can tell them the truth: This has nothing to do with trust and everything to do with neural connectivity and brain development. Car rental companies like Budget and Alamo won’t rent to anyone under the age of 21 for the same reason. And drivers under 25 have to pay an extra daily fee — this isn’t added insurance, this is a “your brain is still developing” fee.

Bill and Melinda Gates didn’t give their kids smartphones until they were 14. Other high-profile tech giants monitor their teen’s online activity because they understand the effects of the technology they create. This is not about being tech-averse or screen-free, it’s about slowing down and recognizing that an adolescent brain is not an adult brain. Possibly, we are fracturing the emotional life of teens, especially middle schoolers, by allowing them to rush (all gas pedal and no brakes) into an uncivil world online — one that clearly has a long way to go before it proves habitable.

Columnist for Human Parts. I believe in Dog. @IWorryAboutYou

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