Maybe this seemed as if it would be funny to the 13-year-old girl. Maybe it seems funny to someone. Maybe I just don’t understand what constitutes funny anymore, because there is nothing about it that strikes me as funny. Not even a little bit.
Tysen Benz was in his room when he read text messages saying someone he knew had committed suicide.
Shortly after, the 11-year-old boy from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula hanged himself.
Now, a 13-year-old girl is facing criminal charges in his death. Marquette County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Wiese said the girl posed as someone else when she faked her own death during a text conversation with Tysen. The boy, for reasons still unclear, believed it and killed himself within two hours of receiving the messages, Wiese said.
There is a causal connection issue between the prank and the suicide. Much as it seems obvious when the story is told along this timeline, there may well be influences that made Tysen susceptible to suicidal ideation, that caused him to consider killing himself at all. Maybe this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Maybe not.
The problem with suicide is that you can’t ask the person who did it why, and the loved ones he leaves behind have good reason to look for a hard reason, an external reason, for this horrific choice. No parent wants to believe that the warning signs were there and he missed them. And that may well be the case, that there was nothing the parent could have done. Contrary to what parents want to believe, we don’t necessarily have that much control over our kids. But as anyone who has used social media for more than thirty seconds knows, it wields enormous influence over people, especially kids for whom it’s become real life.
[Tysen’s mother, Katrina] Goss said her son often used Snapchat. The night he died, she said he was texting and talking on Snapchat with the 13-year-old girl, who was using someone else’s account when she told Tysen that his girlfriend had died. No one warned her son that it was all a prank, Goss said.
“She used her friend’s account to make it even more proof that she’d died,” Goss said. “He was so innocent, so kindhearted and so naive that he completely believed her and he took his own life.”
The word “prank” is troubling. It appears to be used to suggest that the 13-year-old girl didn’t do this with the intention of driving Tysen to suicide, with the deliberate purpose of causing his death. While it may well be reckless to play such a dangerous game, as it surely would have some psychologically detrimental impact if nothing else, that’s a level of thought and understanding that one would expect of an adult. The girl wasn’t an adult. She was just a kid.
And that’s where this tragedy spirals out of control, going off the path of an incredibly foolish prank into seeking the gestalt of some deeper, and attenuated, message.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Goss described her son’s death as the result of “a twisted, sick joke” delivered in the form of cyberbullying on social media. She said she wants to raise awareness about how social media platforms influence children’s actions.
“I want him to basically be the face of the cause. It’s a serious issue that I feel is completely skirted,” Goss said. “The way that children are using social media currently in this day and age is just terrible.”
One can see the Ted Frank Rule coming into play, and the insertion of the buzzword “cyberbullying,” which has no apparent connection to anything here, but has become a popular catchall for any harm to a child delivered electronically, which obviously must be stopped. But what message is it that Goss hopes to send? Don’t make dangerously bad jokes? Don’t have a sick and twisted sense of humor? It’s not as if the false announcement of a dead child hasn’t happened before, with the blessing of MADD, police and school officials.
But Goss takes it a step further when it comes to “somebody should have fixed this.”
Goss said her son and the girl were attending the same school. Although the prank happened outside of school, she said officials have failed to do enough to protect her son.
Putting aside that this happened outside of school, perhaps when a parent should have had a finger on their child’s use of social media, there is no suggestion that there was anything whatsoever that would have given the school any indication that there was an issue, no less a potential tragedy. And the school responds with its own finger-pointing.
In a statement released Thursday, Marquette Area Public Schools Superintendent William Saunders said school officials agree with Goss’s statements about the dangers of social media, but their knowledge of the incident is limited because it happened outside school.
The dangers of social media? That’s not just a loaded claim, but a remarkably unhelpful one. Social media is the transmittal medium of choice for kids. Adults too. But it doesn’t happen on its own. It takes a person doing something to turn it from a pleasure to a danger.
Of course, it lends itself to all manner of mischief, between anonymity that undermines the social inhibitions that would cause people to control their worst instincts to the inexplicable notions people have about what constitutes a prank these days. If you don’t know about Rule 34, you don’t appreciate just how twisted people can be.
According to a 2016 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the number of suicides among adolescents has increased dramatically in recent decades. The study found that being a victim of bullying has a “clear relationship” with committing or thinking of committing suicide.
Furthermore, the study also found that excessive Internet use was “strongly associated with higher levels of depression” and thoughts or attempts to commit suicide.
Was Tysen engaged in “excessive” internet use? Not according to Goss.
Goss said her son, an athlete who played hockey, travel soccer and golf, did not have any underlying issues that would’ve hinted that he’d hurt himself.
“He was perfectly happy and fine. There was no additional sadness that was occurring. He had tons of friends,” she said. “Anybody who knows him knows he’s a shining star.”
Tragedies happen, and sometimes there is no good explanation for why. As much as a mother understandably wants to fix a reason, someone to blame, someone to suffer for the tragedy, there isn’t always a culprit. Yes, a girl engaged in a stupid, childish prank, but that doesn’t make her a criminal. Yes, the internet can lead to all manner of harm, but it’s not going away. Yes, schools should help, but they aren’t mind readers. Sometimes, a tragedy is just a tragedy. Sometimes, there is nothing more to be done.