Kidnap victim Hannah Anderson's reported online chat raises alarms
Experts on teen psychology and Internet safety say anonymous websites are no place for young trauma victims to process their experiences. Hannah Anderson reportedly chatted online about herself and her kidnapping two days after her rescue.
San Diego Sheriff's Department/AP
According to various news accounts, the 16-year-old addressed everything from the death of her mother and brother to her encounter with the horseback riders whose report to law enforcement led to her rescue.
For many teens, communicating on social media websites feels as natural as talking to friends on the phone felt to previous generations. But in the wake of trauma, is the Internet an appropriate place for young people to share and process their experiences?
No, say experts on teen psychology and Internet safety consulted by the Monitor – particularly on anonymous sites such as ask.fm. Many teens don’t think about the negative motives that may exist among the wide audience of their public posts, which they may envision as being viewed mainly by peers, nor do they usually understand the potential consequences, these experts say.
“This girl needs time to reflect upon things before she makes things public, and she may be very sorry about what she’s posting,” says Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with teens in Fairfield County, Conn.
She should be “setting up a support group, finding a safe place where she can talk with people,” Dr. Greenberg says. “And it concerns me that if she’s going onto this site that many millions of people may see, that maybe she doesn’t have someone to talk to yet…. The earlier you treat trauma and loss … the better the prognosis.”
The mother of a friend of Hannah’s confirmed to reporters that the posts were hers and said that her son had urged Hannah to take some of them down. But law enforcement officials and the website itself have not confirmed or denied the origin of the posts. As of late Wednesday morning, the account attributed to her in media reports – Hannahbanana722 – did not turn up on a search of ask.fm.
It’s not uncommon for teens to think of the Internet as a diary, or as a way to communicate with people about difficult subjects without having to face them in person, so the posts might have been a way of “getting attention that she thinks is healing, but in the end, it’s not,” says Parry Aftab, a New Jersey-based lawyer, cyberbullying expert, and founder of the WiredSafety charity.
While people can find a sympathetic audience and some who genuinely care on Internet forums, it’s hard to tell the difference between them and “trolls who look for emotional stories … and ask questions to enrage [the person posting], to set them up for humiliation, or to use as a means for other attacks,” Ms. Aftab says.
Getting an accurate picture of one’s audience on different sites, and setting the right boundaries as circumstances shift, can be difficult for teens and adults alike.
“We all are navigating how to manage wanting to interact and seek support but yet having all that communication be potentially recorded and available for long period of time,” says Amanda Lenhart, director of teens and technology initiatives at the Pew Research Center in Washington.
Among the questions reportedly posed to Hannah was whether she was raped, which she declined to answer. The kidnapper, James Lee DiMaggio, appears to have been the one who murdered her brother and mother. He was killed by an FBI agent in Idaho during her rescue.
As a whole, Ms. Lenhart says, young people “are quite perceptive and concerned about privacy” and take steps to protect it on sites such as Facebook.
Parents have become pretty savvy about Facebook, because they use it, but Aftab says ask.fm isn’t as familiar to parents, and is used primarily by preteens and teens. It’s full of cyberbullying, she says. (The company did not reply to a Monitor e-mail requesting a response.)
In England, ask.fm stirred up controversy recently after a girl who had been maligned by posts on ask.fm committed suicide.
Parents struggle to know what sites and digital tools their kids are using, let alone how to help them set good boundaries.
Hannah’s situation is one in which an adult should have told her that to go online would be to expose herself “to potentially out-of-control backlash that could compound [her] trauma…. But it’s not very likely that any adult said that to her,” says Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. “It might never occur to [adults] that she would want to go to social media with this,” she says, and “these issues evolve so quickly that it’s really tough to keep up,” even for educators.
To be on the safe side, “when there is something traumatic going on in the family … children should be isolated from all electronics so they have time to grieve and deal with things properly,” recommends Jason Stadtlander, an IT professional in Boston who conducts workshops for foster parents about youth, social media, and Internet safety. In normal daily life, he says, young people should be using digital media in common areas of the house, and parents should monitor their activities on mobile devices so they can provide advice and guidance.
The good news, Ms. Englander says, is that when teens are specifically taught that there are certain aspects of life that are better dealt with face to face – whether it’s asking someone out on a date or seeking help from a trusted adult after a traumatic experience – they are receptive to it.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.