Michelle Carter is a teenager who was part of a deadly texting relationship, one that ended in the suicide of her then boyfriend, Conrad Roy. Michelle Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, wanton and reckless conduct, for encouraging Conrad to kill himself, bullying him via text to follow through with his suicidal thoughts, and not doing anything to stop him when she knew he was dying. Last week she received a sentence of 15 months. She was 17 at the time of the crime, he was 18. This tragic case has gotten me thinking a lot about teens and texting and what’s really happening to our children when they conduct online relationships.
Michelle and Conrad called each other boyfriend and girlfriend despite the fact that they had only met in person a few times over their more than two-year relationship. They communicated almost exclusively through text messages, over a thousand of them in just the last week of the boy’s life. Conrad was depressed and had tried to kill himself once before he met Michelle Carter. Michelle, while socially popular, had also struggled with depression and had a history of cutting and anorexia.
In the beginning of their relationship, and at other times throughout it, Michelle encouraged Conrad to get help for his depression and was supportive of his hopes and dreams for moving forward in his life. But as time went by, Michelle became more callous, and chillingly aggressive in convincing him to commit suicide. She even went so far as to tell him that she would look like a fool, after all this effort, if he didn’t kill himself. She said, “You always say you’re going to do it but you never do.” And when Conrad was scared and got out of the truck once it had started filling with carbon monoxide, saying that he didn’t want to die, Michelle told him to get back in and do it. When he worried that his suicide would cause suffering to his family, Michelle Carter told him that his family would get over him after a couple weeks, and that she would take care of them.
So how does something this terrible happen, and why? How does a good kid like Michelle Carter become someone capable of such emotional violence? And does technology have anything to do with why this tragedy happened? Is there something about the texting relationship that causes this kind of behavior and dysfunction? It is critical that we consider such questions now as our teenagers’ relationships have become, for the most part, text-based; kids are communicating less and less in person and more through their devices, experiencing one another via abbreviated, isolated and often terse words on a small screen, without any of the necessary components and triggers for empathy and emotional connection.
When Michelle Carter met Conrad Roy she seemed to care about him and expressed kindness and concern. But over time and text, she grew colder, less empathic, and more involved in what his suicide would mean for her, how it would get her what she wanted, namely, attention. Towards the end, as she convinced her boyfriend over text to take his own life, Michelle requested that Conrad tag her in a last post before he died, to memorialize her as his greatest love. So too, immediately after his death, she began posting on Facebook about her profound loss and suffering. Conrad, for Michelle, had ceased to be a person in his own right, and rather, had become just an object for her, something that could provide or deprive her of her needs. She stopped caring about what was in his or his family’s best interest. Interacting solely with her screen, as opposed to a real-life human being, Michelle Carter seemed only able to feel what would benefit herself.
The texting relationship is missing three profoundly important relational elements, the key ingredients of connection and empathy. Specifically, the sight of someone’s face, the sound of someone’s voice and the language of someone’s body. Without these three elements, it’s extremely difficult to develop or maintain a sense of empathy for another person. Texting relationships, if they are not supplemented with real time together, face to face, eventually, can and do lose a sense of empathy and even reality. The texting teenager shifts from being in relationship with another person to being in a relationship with just themselves. Without visual, auditory, and sensorial cues, the relationship becomes one with their own words and the screen on which they appear. Teenagers are narcissistic by nature, it's normal; in truth, they need more cues - not less - to resist turning every experience into something about themselves. Teenagers need to see, hear, and experience another person in order to remember that the words coming across their screen indeed belong to someone else real, separate from themselves, with real feelings.
Furthermore, the texting relationship adds rocket fuel to a teenage mind. Texting makes it possible to record and manifest every thought that appears, and so teens pay extra attention to their thoughts and are inclined to listen to and formulate every whiff of an idea they experience. As a result, whatever is present in that teenage mind is ignited and strengthened. In the past, perhaps ninety eight percent of a teenager’s thoughts might have simply passed through her mind without much attention, without even being remembered, but now such thoughts are celebrated and exacerbated in the process of turning them into texts, formulating the unformulated, and thus feeding the wild teenage mind.
In addition, texting gives the teenager an un-interrupted audience for her every thought; it offers immediate feedback and attention. Teens today crave attention at a level that’s unprecedented. It is paradoxical really; on the one hand, teens behave as if their every thought is fascinating and worth recording, and yet, they don’t seem to be able to maintain a sense of self-worth unless continually validated, attended to, and reflected through likes, followers, and constant online attention. Texting makes it possible for teens to receive that attention 24/7, which is in part why it’s so addictive and troublesome for the adolescent mind.
So what is a parent to do? How can we keep our teens from becoming the next Michelle Carter or Conrad Roy? Many people judge parents who are unaware of what’s happening in their teen’s online life. But in truth, even the best parents can be duped when it comes to their teen’s texting relationships. Undoubtedly, teenagers need to individuate, to keep secrets and have private spaces that their parents can’t access. But before technology was central to a teenager’s life, parents could, to a certain extent, control their child’s access to secret spaces. For one thing, the private encounters had to happen outside the house, outside a parent’s earshot and view, and also in between activities like school, sports and the like. Now, because teens are communicating with peers around the clock, outside the earshot and sight of their parents, the secrets and private encounters exist everywhere and all the time. As a result, our teenagers’ private lives are impossible to control and difficult to know about, even by the most well-intentioned and loving parent.
In this new world of nonstop texting teens, parents need to be extra vigilant, to pay serious and focused attention to what their kids are saying, doing, and feeling, and the silences between the words. If your teen is becoming more withdrawn, angry, sullen, distracted, or is spending more time on her phone, more time out of sight, it’s critically important to inquire into what’s happening in her online life. And don’t just talk to your teen, talk to the parents of her friends as well, about what they are seeing and hearing. It takes a village to raise a child, and now that their social life goes on outside our reach, we need that village more than ever. As a parent these days we need to be relentless in discovering our children's virtual universe, and specifically, the relationships they are playing out on their screens. We must keep open, or if need be, force open the lines of communication with our teens. Simply trusting and turning the other way, in this new virtually relational world, is no longer an option.