Parents Talk Back: Staging a digital intervention for a teen in trouble

A young teenager from a Michigan high school had pictures of her sexual acts, her drug habit and personal information publicly floating around the Internet a few weeks ago.

Her number of followers on social media jumped from a few thousand to more than 20,000 in a matter of days. She defended herself on Twitter after pictures of her performing a sexual act were posted on Instagram. She briefly became a viral Internet meme.

A reader alerted me to her account. When I saw the pictures of her and her friends in their bathing suits, her school easily identifiable with a quick Google search, I wondered what kind of responsibility an adult bears to a stranger’s child in a situation like that.

Where were this girl’s parents? Where were her friends’ parents?

I was reminded of her when I watched a screening of the movie “Men, Women & Children,” opening in theaters Oct. 17, a dark portrayal of how technology is affecting families and intimacy in all of our relationships. It’s a movie about the ways we seek human connection and how our tech complicates this already rocky terrain.

I asked Jason Reitman, who directed the film and who has an 8-year-old daughter, what he thought about the scenario I confronted earlier.

“My problem isn’t with the Internet,” he said. “But why is this girl so in search of love that she is throwing all of this online so complete strangers will find her appealing?”

Was she in search of love, or did she think a certain type of fame would make her feel good about herself? In Reitman’s movie, the characters experience just about every demon further enabled by technology: porn addiction, eating disorders, affairs, isolation, humiliation.

There are parents in the movie on the far ends of the spectrum – from a hyperviligant mom who tracks her daughter’s every move online to one who exploits her daughter’s sexuality to put her on a fast-track to fame.

Neither of those approaches works out well for the children involved.

“How do you teach your kids to not be broken by all these things that can shatter your confidence on the Internet?” Reitman said to me. “I just don’t know what the rules are.”

Generations will look back at our fumbling and trying to find our way with this pervasive digital connectivity. It’s as if we are driving without air bags and seat belts right now, Reitman said. It’s not as if a car, or technology, is inherently bad, he added. We just haven’t worked out the safest operation of it.

Reitman raises questions that go to the heart of the modern human condition: Why do we need love and attention from people we don’t know? Why do we ignore it from the people close to us?

If that teen on Twitter had been the daughter of someone I know, I would have approached her parents and suggested that they check out her social media accounts because I was worried about her. She may be experimenting with some of the same risky behavior that many other adolescents experience, but she is leaving a permanent trail behind.

Her brain in its mid-teenage years has not yet developed to process actions and consequences the way it will at 25. And while she appears to be reveling in the attention and seeking more of it, I still worry about her emotional and physical safety.

If I had seen her lost on a street corner, would I have stopped to ask if she was OK? Probably. Wouldn’t we want someone to let us know if one of our kids was in trouble?

I thought about this and picked up the phone to call the principal at her school. I left a message identifying who I was, said I was worried about the social media account of one of his students, and left her name. I suggested he might want to contact her parents.

Did I overstep? I don’t know.

Later that afternoon, there was a local news report in that town that the police were investigating sexual pictures that had been posted of a student at the school.

I checked in on her account a few days later. She had not posted anything for six days, but she was back.

She describes herself online with a Britney Spears lyric: “I’m Mrs. Most Likely To Get On TV For Strippin’ On The Streets.”

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.