Pitfalls and Parenting in the Digital Age

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I’ve written a number of times about discipline, parental supervision and technology. There is some pretty good advice out there on the net and a plethora of online communities that exist to provide support to newly minted parents. One theme that has run through many of my posts is the risk and challenges presented by the rapid changes that have taken place in technology during the last twenty years. Some parents are completely adrift when it comes to these developments whilst other more technically savvy mum and dads are able to utilise it to enhance their relationship with their children.

And this is why an incident which occurred in America recently, particularly grabbed my attention. It concerned a 13 year old girl in Tacoma, Washington named Izabel Laxaman who sadly committed suicide on May 29, 2015 by jumping off an overpass on to a busy interstate. She was rushed to a Seattle hospital but died the following day. This is without doubt a tragic incident, but such events are not unknown. Indeed, after cancer and heart disease, suicide accounts for more years of life lost than any other cause of death. The reason for the extended press coverage in this case however was due to the controversial events that apparently preceded Izabel’s death.

It appears the young girl’s father had punished his daughter for some transgression by cutting off her much cherished hair and uploading a video of it to YouTube in what one must assume was an attempt to create embarrassment and ensure future compliance with his house rules. Clearly, this was an idiotic thing to do, a sentiment he apparently shared as the offending video was reportedly removed shortly afterwards. Sadly, the adage that ‘once it is out there it stays out there’ proved true as one of Laxaman friends re-uploaded it after taping the original on his phone.

The video has now been viewed over 4 million times. It opens with a shot of a pretty girl in a black t-shirt staring blankly at the camera, in what appears to be a garage. Her hair has been noticeably cut. A short dialogue then follows:

“The consequences of getting messed up, man, you lost all that beautiful hair,” a male voice can be heard saying from behind the camera. The video pans down, where long locks of black hair are scattered on the ground. “Was it worth it?”
“No,” she says quietly.
“How many times did I warn you?”
“A lot,” she replies, almost inaudible.

The video ends.

After Izabel’s death, a blog called Tacoma Stories claimed that the public shaming had directly led to her suicide. A subsequent backlash by an outraged public was soon calling for her father to be criminally prosecuted for what they believed amounted to abuse. One should add at this point that all of the circumstances surrounding Izabel’s death are not known. Indeed, more information has since surfaced suggesting that other incidences of bullying (unrelated to the YouTube video) and a concern that some compromising photos she sent to a boyfriend via social media were being shared or would be shared may have also contributed to her delicate state of mind. I think this point is important. The precise reasons or nexus of events that precipitate suicides are in general notoriously difficult to determine. Not least, as mentioned in many other blogs, the fact that our very early experiences which create our sense of self (or lack of) can be massively destabilised by later triggers.

Whatever the exact circumstances, this father is guilty of a major misjudgement, but one could question whether he needs an enraged public to punish him for it. He is no doubt in hell and my sympathy goes out to the family of poor Izabel.

Nevertheless, there are important lessons to be learned here. Teenagers are, despite their robust appearance, really quite fragile creatures. There is perhaps nothing that more eloquently and tragically illustrates this than the case of Izabel. In the maelstrom of adolescent emotion small things are magnified exponentially and the trivial becomes monumental. This is something we must be mindful of. We should also be careful how we engage with a teenager’s world. Utilising the language of social media, the medium which our children understand, can be a powerful way of connecting with them, but intruding recklessly on it can be incredibly detrimental too. Our children need boundaries but they also need their own space too. Entering this space this has its own set of rules and we would do well to spend some time understanding them.

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