Rehtaeh & Audrie: A Tale Of Two Tragedies

April 13, 2013

Is Social Media to Blame?

This week, we once again learned of two more tragic incidents where teens took their own lives: Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17 year old young lady from Cole Harbor, Nova Scotia; and Audrie Pott, a 15 year old young lady from Santa Clara, California. Although neither knew one another, and the events that appear to have lead both to take their own life are still unfolding, the parents and those in the know of both girls, via the media, are bringing to light some of the important elements of these two deaths that I find tragically similar:

  • both were teenage girls
  • both attended a house party
  • both were allegedly sexually assaulted where there were multiple males present at the time of the assault
  • both were drinking and appear to have been grossly intoxicated at the time of the alleged sexual assault
  • both had non-consensual digital pictures taken of the alleged sexual assault that were then distributed to other teens via MMS (text) or posted onto a social media site.
  • both experienced severe public shaming from peers as a result of the pictures being distributed, that ultimately lead to a mental health crisis which then resulted in both taking their own life by hanging themselves

I have been a law enforcement officer now for 27 years, and the above noted is not an unfamiliar process to me, this is something that I have seen time and time again over my police career. The difference today, however, unlike when I first started policing back in 1987, some now use digital devices and social media as a way to further victimize their target to a larger peer base. Where once upon a time a Polaroid or video may have been taken of the sexual assault that was “maybe” passed or shown to a few, texting and social networking have the ability to virally spread it to thousands within seconds.

As a result of these two tragic deaths, some are placing heavy blame on social media for what happened. My belief is that social media in itself is not to blame; ignorance and the irresponsible, careless use of social media is. In these two cases, there is no doubt that irresponsible use did play a roll.

What happened in these two incidents is bigger than the role of social media, however, at their core, these tragic incidents are more about the lack of ethics, morals, beliefs, and human decency. It’s about…

  • young men not understanding the difference between right and wrong
  • young men believing that it was okay to commit a sexual assault
  • young men believing that it was okay to take pictures of the sexual assault and distribute them as if they were “trophy shots” to be proud of via text and social networks
  • young men being taught that it is okay to treat women as nothing more than “objects” for their own self pleasure
  • young men, bystanders, who were watching the sexual assault taking place and doing nothing to stop it
  • young people, bystanders, who received or knew about these pictures and not bringing them to the attention of a trusted adult so that something could be done to stop their spread sooner than later
  • young people, bystanders, irresponsibly using digital technology to virally send these pictures to friends, thus perpetuating the victimization of these young ladies
  • young people not understanding that the public shaming of one another can cause mental health crisis which can lead to self harm or suicide
  • young people not understanding that these crimes cause mental health crisis in those targeted which can lead to self harm or suicide
  • young people not understanding that such actions are not funny, they are VIOLENCE
  • young people drinking to the point where they can no longer care for themselves

This is, in no way, an attempt to place blame on the two girls for what happened. It is however, a very common theme that I have seen in many violent crimes over my years as a police officer.

Based upon what I have read thus far in the media, we adults have failed not only Rehtaeh and Audrie, but also the youth who committed these crimes. Between these two incidents there appear to have been seven young men who were responsible: four in Rehtaeh’s case, and three in Audrie’s case. I would hazard a guess and say that most, if not all of these seven alleged offenders were good people, (just look at the teens that were recently convicted in the Stuebenville case where they digitally recorded a sexual assault of a highly intoxicated female that they sent to their friends. By all accounts, they were good kids and good community citizens), BUT they all allegedly committed a horrible act of violence that appears to have ultimately lead to two young girls to have taken their own lives, which is unacceptable and, in my opinion, criminal.

To me, this screams out education, education, education. Not just from the school system, but more importantly, from us parents. We parents need to start taking some responsibility for ensuring that our kids are well-grounded with an ethical and moral compass that always hold them true to family values, beliefs and moral human decency. We parents also need to hold our kids responsible for their actions when family values and beliefs are breached. Not to do so only starts a slippery slope of undesirable behaviour in our kids that they believe is okay. Do schools have a part to play? You bet. BUT we parents have a much larger and more important role. Parental abdication on this issue is allowing modern media (print, TV, radio, music, video, internet) to dictate to our kids what “they,” the industry, believe to be morally and ethically acceptable human behaviour.

As an example, the “pornification” of our youth by modern media, in all its forms, is unbelievable. The sexual objectification of young girls is teaching our sons and daughters that it’s okay for males, specifically, to be physically aggressive when it comes to sex and to take what they want no matter what their partner says or does. Girls are taught to be passive and to give the boys what they want. I have presented our internet/social media safety and digital citizenship program to over 108,000 youth so far in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Washington State and did you know that our kids are sharing with me that “anal” is the new “oral” amongst junior and senior high school students. Why? Because we are allowing the porn industry to dictate what “healthy” human sexuality is to our kids. ARE YOU KIDING ME???!!! It’s no wonder, then, that incidents of sexual violence, such as those allegedly reported in Rehtaeh’s and Audrie’s cases, are taking place at steadily increasing rates. We parents need to fight this media-generated, socially conditioned ignorance by first educating ourselves on these important topics, and then having open and honest discussions with our kids about these very issues. Meaningful, empathetic education and communication can defeat ignorance, but this message needs to be compounded over time. Talking to your kids only once or twice about these challenges is not good enough. In my humble opinion as a parent, social media safety advocate, and law enforcement professional, this is not happening to the extent that it should be. Parents need to start parenting and stop abdicating this responsibility to others because if you do, it is a recipe for disaster.

I am a big believer in reasonable, appropriate, and measured consequences for actions. Please read two other articles that I have written specific to consequences of less-than-desirable online behaviour that can be located here:

In Audrie’s case, charges have been laid against three boys. Sadly, in Rehtaeh’s case, Crown Prosecutors advised that there was not enough evidence to proceed with charges, which has also sparked a huge public outcry over the RCMP’s handling of the investigation.

In both investigations police took some time to complete their investigations. In Audrie’s case, it has been reported in the media that it took law enforcement eight months to investigate the case. In Rehtaeh’s case, it has been reported in the media that it took the RCMP over a year. I am not going to comment on either investigation, as I am not purvey to what police did or what their investigation uncovered, but as a law enforcement professional I will comment on the fact that the length of these investigations, in these types of multi-factorial crimes, is not unusual.

Too many of my friends believe that what they watch on the television show CSI is how police collect evidence, conduct an investigation, and then solve the crime – all within the hour of the TV show. Oh my god, I wish it was that easy, but the reality is it is NOT. Following a path of evidence to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt to a judge and/or jury is both labour and resource exhaustive in today’s judicial system. When you now combine traditional investigative techniques that don’t necessarily flow over into the online world, where the digital evidentiary bread crumbs can be hidden and morphed, such investigations could actually take much, much longer. Judicial best practice dictates that we have to ensure that we fulfill our legal responsibility of investigative due diligence, and this takes time which can be extremely frustrating to family, friends, and to the public when tragedies such as these happen. Readers must also understand that knowing something happened in the court of public opinion, and proving it in a court of law are two different things. Also understand that the accused have rights in Canada, and one of those rights is not to speak with police about what happened. Also if there were witnesses present who do not come forward, or who do not cooperate with police, this too becomes problematic when it comes to an investigation and proving guilt. To obtain a conviction in a court of law, we, the police, and Crown need to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a very high legal standard that I agree with so that we ensure that we are convicting the guilty, and not the innocent.

Again, I’m not going to comment on the contents of the RCMP’s investigation that was forwarded to Nova Scotia Crown in Rehtaeh’s case, because I am not aware of the who, what, where, how, and why of the investigation. That is what a judicial review/inquiry is for and if they find that there was investigative negligence on the part of the RCMP, then appropriate consequences to their actions will take place. I would caution the reader however, not to criticize or jump to conclusions as to what the RCMP did or did not do based upon only part of the story. Let’s choose the consequence that fits the facts, not our less rational fears of what we believe they did or did not do.

So is social media to blame in the deaths of Rehtaeh and Audrie? I definitely do not believe so. Ignorance and irresponsible usage of social media, however, did play a roll. We fight ignorance through real, open, and honest education about all the topics that I have mentioned and shared in this article. We fight irresponsible internet use via parental communication and supervision. My fear is that we will continue to see these types of deaths unless we (parents and community) get it through to our kids that this is not funny, it’s violence, and young people are self-harming and taking their own lives because of it. Knowledge and the understanding and application of that knowledge is power.

My thoughts and prayers are with the families of Rehtaeh, Audrie, and all the other parents who have lost a child to suicide. The way life is supposed to work is that our kids are supposed to bury us parents, we parents are not supposed to bury our kids.


Darren Laur

AKA “The White Hatter” #thewhitehatter

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