As social media shifts boundaries, a student's suicide shows a darker side

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Tyler Clementi, left, committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, days after roommate Dharun Ravi, 18, and Molly Wei, right, allegedly video streamed a Clementi sexual encounter.

If you're 20 years old or younger, you probably grew up using computers, cell phones, iPods, and Facebook. Photos, for you, are images not necessarily printed on paper. CDs are old hat. You take digital - digital everything - for granted.

In such a world, how easy is it to record and be recorded, to share your - or someone else's - most intimate secrets by posting them on the Web?

All too easy.

Easy gathering and distribution of information are hallmarks of the digital age. They played out all too disastrously for first-year Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, three days after roommate Dharun Ravi, 18, allegedly made and streamed online a secret video of an encounter between Clementi and another man. Clementi's body was identified Wednesday. Ravi and Rutgers freshman Molly Wei, also 18, have been charged with invading his privacy, and Middlesex County prosecutors say bias-crime charges are possible.

Clementi even said farewell via Facebook: "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry."

His death has spurred fierce debate, on and off campus and on the Internet, about social media, changing notions of privacy, and whether what happened was a crime. Manginder Singh writes on Facebook, "Why are we blaming Darun and Molly for this?" while DePaul University student Ricky Moreci writes, "I may not go as far as to call them murderers, but I will absolutely call them responsible for Tyler's death. And I would absolutely call this despicable action a hate crime."

Emily Nussbaum, a frequent writer on social-media and privacy issues and editor at large for New York magazine, hastens to say, "I am completely baffled about why people don't make a distinction between what you do and do not post."

But she also sees three important forces at work in this story: "The availability and ease of the technology; the growing normalcy of porn, especially the rise of amateur porn, in which you post sexual images of yourself or others, and the social-networking change in people's attitude toward privacy."

Fayaz Lalani, 19, a sophomore in mathematics and finance at Drexel University, puts it simply: "No one has privacy anymore."

Neil Bernstein, an adolescent psychologist in Washington and author of How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to do if You Can't, sees two trends converging: the "dilution of intimacy" brought about by the new media, and what he calls "behavior contagion," or the tendency of people to do what those around them are doing.

The Web can connect people in strong, healthy ways, Bernstein says. But the dark side is that our notion of intimacy may be diluted.

"There's a decreased empathy that sometimes comes with social media," he says. "Because they're online, people will consider themselves intimate with people they don't really know at all. And this has an impact on relationships."

Also, all around you, your friends and acquaintances post information once thought private: names of boy- or girlfriends, social plans, secrets.

Technology does change attitudes, and fast. "When phones became cameras," Nussbaum says, "every friend you had became your paparazzo. All the previous ethical boundaries about taking photos of someone else without express permission, which used to be seen as an invasion of privacy, that's all but gone now."

Which leaves all of us vulnerable. Rob D'Ovidio, associate professor of criminal justice in the department of culture and communications at Drexel, says that low-cost, miniaturized recording technology is "entering the widespread public domain."

In the past, we needed to worry only about Big Brother: government and corporate entities with the power to gather and manipulate private info. "Now," says D'Ovidio, "we're in the era where we have to watch everyone, including other consumers, our colleagues, our classmates - we have to watch everyone from now on. "Big Brother has trickled down to the Everyperson."

Opportunity - and temptation - to misuse social media are everywhere. "The will to betray, the will to deceive, is out there," warns Gary T. Marx, professor emeritus of social science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Social media simply make it easier.

Also involved is the culture of "pranking," with its overtones of humiliation, harassment, and bullying. According to the Associated Press, since 2003 in the United States, at least a dozen children or young adults between 11 and 18 have killed themselves after some form of cyberbullying. Perhaps best known is the case of 13-year-old Megan Meier of Dardenne Prairie, Mo., who hanged herself in 2006 after getting MySpace messages supposedly from a boy breaking up with her. The messages were really sent by the mother of a friend.

Much of the Internet debate focuses on whether what happened to Clementi amounts to a hate crime against gays. Hayley Gorenberg, a lawyer with Lambda Legal, a national LGBT civil-rights organization, said she was terribly saddened but not at all shocked to learn of Clementi's death. "We know the rates of suicide among LGBT youth who do not feel supported are sky-high," she said. "Social media can be a fantastic source of support for youth who feel isolated, but the potential is there for depersonalization that removes perpetrators from the face-to-face interaction."

Debate among young people shows that they, too, are still negotiating issues of privacy and responsibility in the social-media world.

There is even a Facebook page titled "Manslaughter charges for Dharun Ravi & Molly Wei." Joshua Burston of Toronto writes that the case is "another example of the dehumanization of gay people that leads to suicide." But Jessica Tu of Fort Lee, N.J., writes that the deeds of "two people who had the INTENTION to prank" should not be compared to "something as heinous as murder."

In an interview on campus yesterday, Brendan Mangan, 20, a junior in chemistry at Temple University, said he thought ridicule was the aim of the video posting, and believed it played a big part in Clementi's death. Drexel medical student Daniel Devine, 22, thought Twitter postings preceding the video showed that the act was premeditated.

But Temple communications junior Mike Oberlies, 20, believes manslaughter charges are not warranted because "it was not their goal to kill him." Lalani of Drexel says, "You cannot say they induced" Clementi's death.

In all the debate, few are likely to disagree with psychologist Bernstein: "It's just terribly, terribly, terribly sad."

 


Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or twitter.com/jtimpane.

Inquirer staff writers Carolyn Davis, Rachel Gouk, and Dianna Marder contributed to this article.