When the internet becomes deadly
I had an intensely painful lunch earlier this week with a woman who is a mid-level executive of one of the auto companies. She used to be concerned about the future of the auto industry. She is also deeply religious, and is appalled by what was going on in Washington.
Appalled in theory, that is. In reality, she no longer cares. For her, life as she knew it has been destroyed by a growing epidemic you may never have heard about.
She hadn’t either. Teenagers are sometimes and at some point, crazy. We got into plenty of trouble in the analog world in which I grew up. Billy suggesting we “borrow” his brother’s Corvette even though we didn’t have our licenses yet, et cetera.
But there was no social media then. And I never heard of what the online version of Time magazine, in a major story on March 12, called “the choking game,” though it evidently existed, even then. Kids wrap a belt, a noose or something around their necks until they almost pass out. In the “old days,” like the 1990s, they usually did it in groups.
Now, they often do it alone, talking to other kids online and watching videos on YouTube. And hundreds have died. The woman I was lunching with was happily married, and she had one son who was born when she was in her late 30s. He was getting ready for college. He was an honor student with a sunny disposition; athletic, handsome, and had his first girlfriend.
And then his father found his body hanging in the basement.
The death was ruled a suicide – and that’s why she came to me. I am the ombudsman for the Toledo Blade, a newspaper that circulates in southern Michigan and Northwest Ohio. That means I deal with reader complaints.
The newspaper had published the coroner’s ruling. She couldn’t believe her son had killed himself, and wanted that changed. I gently explained that the paper had to print the word of the authorities. She knew that – but she’d also done her research.
She got into her son’s computer, and found he had been communicating with a young woman who lives somewhere on the East Coast. “I lasted 20 seconds before passing out,” she told this woman’s son, daring him to do better.
It is clear what happened after that. She took her evidence to authorities, and last night the coroner told me that, yes, he was going to take the relatively rare step of changing that ruling, and I was able to tell her the newspaper would print that.
I imagine that would be precious little compensation.
There wasn’t much else I could say to this once-happy woman who had been thin to begin with and has lost 35 pounds, who knows that our schools and democracy are in trouble and our roads are falling apart, but who can no longer care about any of that.
Except I thought I’d tell her story, in the hope that maybe somebody would hear me and somehow stop some kid who thinks he is indestructible from killing himself.
We live in a world of wholesale problems, and I’ll be back talking about those tomorrow. But in the end, tragedy is personal, and I would hope this never happens to you.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.