Did "sexting" cause a teen's suicide?

An article announces that it did, while burying other key details.

Published March 7, 2009 12:00PM (EST)

The headline sent my hand flying to my gaping mouth: "Her teen committed suicide over 'sexting.'" The MSNBC article reported on a mourning mother's appearance on Friday's "Today" show to talk about how text messaging nude photographs killed her daughter.

The story is a familiar one: Jesse Logan, 18, sent her boyfriend some naughty snapshots. After they broke up, he sent the photos to some high school girls, some of whom took to shaming Jesse by calling her a "slut" and a "whore." This is where the story breaks from the usual: The torment continued for some time, and worsened, driving her to appear anonymously on local TV to warn of the consequences of "sexting." A couple of months later, she killed herself; her mother, Cynthia, found Jesse hanging in her bedroom closet.

It is a truly heart-rending story. It also serves as a vital reminder to teens that "sexting" can lead to severe embarrassment, taunting and bullying. But, it is with the utmost respect and sympathy that I have to ask: Did "sexting" really cause this tragedy?

The question came to mind immediately after reading the headline, because attributing a suicide to a particular outside cause is often dubious. Teenagers might commonly kill themselves in response to major stressors, like family turmoil or a devastating breakup, but, as the National Alliance on Mental Illness puts it, such examples "are actually not the 'causes' of the suicide, but rather triggers for suicide in a person suffering from a mental illness or substance-related disorder." "Sexting" might be a trigger, just as old-fashioned gossip campaigns or bullying can be.

It wasn't until I was more than halfway through the story that I learned that immediately before killing herself, Jesse had attended the funeral of a friend who had committed suicide. There is a name for this sort of phenomenon: suicide contagion. The Department of Health & Human Services defines it as "the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one's family, one's peer group, or through media reports of suicide and can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors." So-called suicide clusters are especially common among adolescents and young adults. Despite all that, there is but that one single reference to Jesse's friend's suicide in the entire article.

It seems shameful and irresponsible on MSNBC's part to use this young woman's tragic death -- with a disregard for accuracy, honesty and complexity -- to promote a panic over "sexting." In fact, going after a powerful, rather than accurate, hook in this case is far more dangerous than I originally realized: "The risk for suicide contagion as a result of media reporting can be minimized by factual and concise media reports of suicide," according to HHS. "Suicide is the result of many complex factors; therefore media coverage should not report oversimplified explanations such as recent negative life events or acute stressors." (Emphasis added.)

Jesse's tragic suicide should provide a powerful lesson for parents, but, comforting as it may be, it seems harmfully misleading to finger "sexting" as the cause. Instead, it should underscore the dangers of untreated depression and the astronomical suicide rate among young adults.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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