As with Columbine High, the Internet is being looked at as having a possible role in Jeff Weise’s tragic shooting spree in a Minnesota high school this week. But it might help parents to consider that the reasons for this tragedy have more to do with people than with technology – people online and offline. A number of posts associated with Jeff, in blogs and discussion boards, indicate the mental state he was in. According to the New York Times today, he “wrote that his mother [before an accident that left her brain-damaged] ‘would hit me with anything she could get her hands on,’ and ‘would tell me I was a mistake, and she would say so many things that its hard to deal with them or think of them without crying.” One of his screennames was “verlassen4_20,” “which means ‘abandoned’ in German and refers to Hitler’s April 20 birthday,” the Associated Press reports. And then there’s time’s role: Jeff apparently had plenty of it on his hands to create and post a violent animated video called “Target Practice,” write stories about and death and destruction, and post despairing comments and suicide threats.
Here’s where the Internet does have a role: It enables anonymous strangers to be sounding boards for and supporters of destructive behavior, from eating disorders to racism to suicide. It makes information and encouragement (both negative and positive) more accessible (see “Secret Society of Starving” in the NYT in ’02 and “Japan’s Net suicide tragedy” in my newsletter). This is why parents and caregivers need to be engaged in kids’ online lives. Besides a child’s own mental state and behavior, one tip-off is large amounts of time spent online. That time can of course be creative, academic, social – the online version of normal teenage activity and interaction – but when combined with depression or loneliness, it’s a call for care and attention. I hope all of us, kids’ peers and caregivers, will get better at recognizing the online signs better *before* they lead to tragedy. Here’s more coverage at Salon.com and the Minneapolis Star Tribune (among nearly 3,000 results on the story in Google News).
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