Creating (and Destroying) Realities

At thirteen years of age and living just four-doors apart from each other, Sarah Drew and Megan Meier were your typical girl friends in your typical Missouri town living their typical teenage lives. Megan and Sarah even experienced a typical falling-out, when chats about boys turned into name-calling, bickering and, eventually, silence.

If only that had been the end of their typical friendship. Instead, in the summer of 2006, Sarah’s mother, Lori Drew, got involved. Aged forty-seven at the time, Lori created a MySpace profile for a fictional boy, Josh Evans. She sought out and “friended” Megan Meier online “in an attempt to woo [Megan] and extract information from her to determine if she had been spreading gossip about [her] daughter.” [1] For weeks, Lori Drew, her daughter, and a co-worker fabricated a romantic relationship with Meier until, in October 2006, things got ugly. Attacking Megan’s self-esteem, “Josh Evans” wrote “I don’t want to be friends with you anymore because you’re not nice to your friends.”[2] Shortly after Megan replied, asking what he meant, she realized that “Evans” had publicly posted messages she had written to him, where they could be viewed by all of her friends at school. As a result, these “friends” began posting bulletins making fun of Megan.

The last message “Evans” wrote was simply and cruel: “Everybody in O’Fallon knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you.”[3] The final message Megan would send to Josh, or to anyone, was chillingly short: “You’re the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over.”

And so she did. Twenty minutes after Megan sent this message to the person she knew as Josh, the “totally hot” sixteen year old who had been courting her for weeks, her mother discovered her hanging from a belt in her closet; a macabre image made tragically ironic by the fact that Megan had struggled for years with a depression caused, in part, by feeling overweight. [3]

At the time, Megan’s parents knew nothing of Josh Evans. Weeks later, Mrs. Grills, the single mother of Ashley Grills, who worked for Lori Drew and sent messages on behalf of Josh Evans at her direction, approached the Meiers with terrible news. She shared with them what had only recently come to her attention, that Lori Drew and her daughter Sarah had created the identity of Josh Evens in order to inflict emotional pain on Megan – and that they had convinced Mrs. Grills daughter, Ashley, to “join in the joke.”[3] Before the ambulance had even left the Meiers’ house with Megan’s body, Ashley received a call from Lori Drew telling her that something had happened to Megan and that it was best not to mention the MySpace account they had created. Ashley, fortunately, did not have so barren a conscience. Later, under immunity granted by the US Attorney, she testified to the truth of the Drews’ sickening scheme.

On Wednesday, November 26, 2008, a little more than two years after Megan’s death, a federal jury in Los Angeles convicted Lori Drew of three misdemeanor charges of computer fraud. As a result, Drew faces up to three years in prison and up to $300,000 in fines. She was acquitted of the more serious charges.[5]

The costs of the game Lori Drew played are immeasurable: one young girl’s life; on couple’s daughter, a marriage (Megan’s parents are getting a divorce, unable to grapple with the guilt they face); the solidarity and happiness of two families. And for what? Vengeance? Simple malice?

As difficult, and sad, as it might be to realize, the costs are not as significant as are the glaring issues we must face as a society. Megan Meier is not the only young girl who has been assaulted online – and nor will she be the last. According to a Pew Internet Project study released in 2007, one-third (32%) of online US teens have been victims of cyberbullying. [6]

Anyone who might have suggested that online content is insignificant, or that our presence online is trivial, must surely be convinced that is not the case. We create our own realities through language, through interaction with others. We are all intimately familiar with the physical, face-to-face reality-construction that was all our parents knew. It has only been for an incredibly short period of time that identities, relationships, and other aspects of our lives have been created, maintained, and/or supported by online activities. And we are simply unprepared.

Joseph Mele, a former instructor at the National Crime Prevention Institute, once observed that lighting an area reduces the threat of crime there.[7] At the core of observation is the understanding that when people feel they aren’t being watched, they feel invincible, untouchable, and able to do anything they desire – even if it is going to hurt someone else. Is it such a leap of the imagination to think of the Internet as just a very large, dark expanse in which people may feel at liberty to do as they wish? Of course not – that’s just common sense. What will take more effort, however, is to determine where the root of the problem lies.

Is it up to social networking sites to protect us from online marauders? Is it up to the government? Should one, the other, or both establish squads of people relentlessly combing through our online communication in order to track down those with bad intentions. Is the invasion of our privacy a price we’re willing to pay for security?

Or is it up to schools to ensure our children approach online activities as responsible members of a community? Perhaps Online Citizenship courses should be required fare during high school, or earlier.

Or is this an issue to be fought within the home? Maybe it is parents who should be teaching their children about citizenship – and how it should still exist in cyberspace.

Frankly, we’re only going to make progress if everyone fight’s the good fight: our social media providers, our government, and – most importantly – those people who have a direct influence on how we develop as human beings. That is a true position of leadership: to show those looking up to you that the time for kind words or no words at all is all the time – that there is never an excusable lapse for libel.

———

[1] “Cyberbulling case goes to jury,” UPI.com. [Link].

[2] “Lori Drew charged over MySpace suicide,” Fairfax Digital, May 16, 2008. [Link].

[3] “MySpace hoax ends with suicide of Dardenne Prairie teen,” Suburban Journals, November 11, 2007. [Link]

[4] “Verdict in MySpace Suicide Case,” NY Times, November 26, 2008. [Link].

[5] “In the wake of MySpace verdict, could social networks do more to protect consumers?” Los Angeles Times, November 26, 2008. [Link].

[6] “Cyberbullying and Online Teens,” Pew/Internet, June, 2007. [Link].

[7] “Inhibiting Crime Through Design.” [Link].

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