2 May 2007

Blame it on MySpace

By Rachel Hills
The internet was not responsible for the deaths of Victorian high school students Jodie Gater and Stephanie Gestier, writes Rachel Hills

When 16-year-old high school students Jodie Gater and Stephanie Gestier were found dead in the Dandenong Ranges National Park last week, The Age commemorated them with the following headline: 'MySpace Link to Teens Found Dead in Bush.'

The Daily Telegraph was less sensitive. It broke the news with: 'Two teenage girls hanged themselves in a suicide pact after leaving bizarre messages to their friends on an internet site.'

In the months leading up to their suicide, Gater and Gestier who played in a band together had posted about their depression on their MySpace profile pages, in the form of song lyrics, images and notes to their friends. The 'bizarre message' referred to by the Daily Telegraph was in reality simply a cryptic goodbye from Gater to her boyfriend, posted the day before she disappeared and hinting at what was to come: ' I luv you sooo soo much Allan, Miss u heaps and heaps xoxoxo I will always remember u.'

In the days that followed, the sensationalist headlines flew thick and fast: 'Suicide Teens Web Mystery'; 'Net Spreads Sadness'; 'Planet Girl Is In Crisis'; 'Tragic Last Words of MySpace Suicide Girls.'  

At the centre of all of them? The dangers of the internet, especially for young people.

Suicide is always tragic, and it's understandable that the death of two girls so young would shake the community.

But Gater's and Gestier's suicide pact had nothing to do with the internet. The girls' friendship took place primarily offline they attended school together. There are no records of them planning their deaths online, only posting morbid poetry and messages to their friends. The internet figured in that expression only because for many people, particularly younger people, the internet has become a key and certainly the most public venue in which they express themselves. A teenager posting macabre poetry or songs on the internet today is not all that different to one scribbling it in the back of a notebook 40 years ago.

It's hard not to be cynical about how quick the newspapers were to play up the role of MySpace in the girls' deaths. A google search of the use of the word 'MySpace' on News Limited's website news.com.au brings up 4990 responses. The same search on Fairfax's The Age gets 4530 responses, and on the Sydney Morning Herald 5080 responses.

For journalists, inserting the word 'MySpace' or 'YouTube' into a headline is an easy way to make a tired story look exciting, even salacious. Gatecrashers, break-ups, politics  and sex predators all become top-read stories once 'MySpace' is inserted into the mix. And while a teen suicide pact was always going to be shattering news, hooking it to MySpace made it possibly the biggest story of the week.

It's gross, exploitative and insensitive, but it's an easy trap to fall into and not just because it increases online news hits. MySpace, with more than 100 million users, has become shorthand for the internet as a whole. And as the internet increasingly infiltrates every aspect of people's lives, almost every news story does relate to MySpace (or Facebook, or Google, or Wikipedia) in some way.

Jodie Gater and Stephanie Gestier

But there's a generation gap people under 30 are much more likely to see the internet as a natural space for everyday expression, confession and communication than those over 30. And people under 20 approach it differently again. New York magazine journalist Emily Nussbaum (herself in her thirties) described a 26-year-old source as 'an old lady, in Internet terms' in a recent article not because 26 is 'old,' but because it positions a person outside the generation that grew up with the internet as an integral part of their lives.

And lack of understanding breeds fear.

By coincidence, the night the story of Gater and Gestier's suicides broke, the ABC's new panel discussion program, Difference of Opinion, aired a show on how the internet was affecting teens and twentysomethings, wondering if it was making them less socially connected, more self-absorbed and less troubled by cruelty and violence.

Panelist Kate McCaffery, a high school teacher, hit at the core of the issue when she said that the biggest problem was that 'parents are not connected to those forums [their] kids are using.' McCaffery was concerned that parents wouldn't be able to give their children the guidance they needed to use technology sensibly and indeed it's important that they do offer guidance but her remark has other implications: how can those who have little experience of the internet make sense of it themselves?

In part, the mainstream media's obsessive coverage of new media phenomena is designed to help people who don't understand 'this whole internet thing' make sense of it. Following the reports of Gater and Gestier's suicides, The Age ran two page-two stories by writers in their early twenties, explaining how MySpace worked and what its implications were for those who use it. But these articles were only written because the newspapers made the internet the 'real story' behind the suicides in the first place.

As Margaret Simons  remarked at a New Matilda panel at the Melbourne Writers Festival last year, the internet has heralded 'a period of extraordinary change,' potentially analogous with the changes that followed the advent of the printing press.

These changes to the way we conceive privacy, form communities, construct our identities and conduct commerce, just for starters are still in their early stages, and we are only just beginning to make sense of them. Contrary to initial expectations, for example, recent studies show that regular internet users are actually more social offline than non-users. And the use of online forums to discuss mental health issues such as depression and anorexia has given psychologists a greater insight into the mindsets of the people they work with.

In the rush to understand all the changes happening around us, it's important to not to fall into the panic trap. Jodie Gater and Stephanie Gestier did not commit suicide because they wrote about depression on the internet; they wrote about depression on the internet because, like many young people, MySpace was their space, their sanctum for self-expression.

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