** I wrote this article last year on another site, but given recent events I wanted to repost it on my site. I’ll talk about it more in a future entry **

I came across this article the other day, and found it particularly distressing given the prevalence of online social websites such as Facebook and MySpace these days:

Megan Meier thought she had made a new friend in cyberspace when a cute teenage boy named Josh contacted her on MySpace and began exchanging messages with her.

Megan, a 13-year-old who suffered from depression and attention deficit disorder, corresponded with Josh for more than a month before he abruptly ended their friendship, telling her he had heard she was cruel.

The next day Megan committed suicide. Her family learned later that Josh never actually existed; he was created by members of a neighborhood family that included a former friend of Megan’s.

What’s exceedingly cruel is that the fake account was created not just by a girl at Megan’s school, but was also created in conjunction with that girl’s mother. The reason for creating it, according to that mother was because “she wanted to gain Megan’s confidence to know what Megan was saying about her own child online.”

While still inexcusable, given my own experiences in elementary school, I can at least understand kids saying mean things to each other. But it’s hard for me to fathom how any parent could deliberately attack someone else’s child by repeatedly sending horrible messages to them:

Someone using Josh’s account was sending cruel messages. Then, Megan called her mother, saying electronic bulletins were being posted about her, saying things like, “Megan Meier is a slut. Megan Meier is fat.”

The final straw for Megan, according to her parents, was a message she received from Josh:

Her father said he found a message the next day from Josh, which he said law enforcement authorities have not been able to retrieve. It told the girl she was a bad person and the world would be better without her, he has said.

While I do not have any children of my own, I have a nine year old niece back home that means the world to me. She has spent her whole life surrounded by close friends and relatives who love her to pieces. She goes out of her way to help others, and smiles at everything she possibly can in this world. To think that in a few years she will probably be on a few of these social websites, potentially dealing with situations like this is an absolutely sickening thought that has lately been causing me a great deal of stress. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be a parent, to be constantly trying to protect your child from harm, only to know that there’s a limit to the protection that they can ultimately provide.

Megan’s death was tragic, but was it unavoidable? Where does the responsibility ultimately lie for her protection? Her parents sound like they loved her, and tried to find a balance between protection and her being involved with social activities such as online communities. And yet this still this happened. Should these social websites take a more active role in protecting children?

How many emails a day are governments filtering, looking for keywords about terrorism and who knows what else? We balk at these measures because they invade our privacy, and are outside of our control. But surely on a website where membership is voluntary there should be allowances for filtering emails or whatever else can be done to protect these children from these types of cruelty. I mean seriously, shouldn’t emails containing the word “slut” in a 13 year old girl’s inbox trigger something or someone?

When the dust settles from what happened to Megan, I really hope that some of the social networks will step up and propose measures to limit this from happening. If I was a parent, I would definitely think twice about letting my kids anywhere near these websites today.