Blaming websites like Formspring for a young girl's suicide totally misses the mark

My head of school passed Rachel Simmons' blog post, What Every Parent Should Know About Formspring: The New Cyberscourge for Teens, to me. I read it, found it troubling, and had to write a response.

I had a great conversation with our 7th and 8th graders about formspring a few weeks ago, which I blogged about here. I thought that the article by Rachel Simmons was pretty poor. She starts with, “Last week, a Long Island high school senior committed suicide, and the website is suspected as a cause.” She links to an article which says just the opposite! See these quotes from the article she linked to:

“Alexis' parents downplayed the Internet role, saying their daughter was in counseling before she ever signed up with, a new social site, where many of the attacks appeared.”

"I believe in my heart that cyberbullying wasn't the cause of Lexi's death," said her mother, Paula Pilkington. "This is a mistake."

It also didn’t recognize what the site is capable of in a positive way. For instance, I purchased a new dining table that is unfinished wood, and wasn’t sure how best to treat it. So, I went to this wonderful design bloggers website and asked her a question about wood treatment via her formspring. She replied to me within an hour. Problem solved. By an expert. There is a place for every technology tool, and there’s a poor way to use all of them, too. That’s what parents and students have to negotiate.

The bigger issue here is talking to students about “anonymous” behavior on the Internet, and what it entails. I gave the girls a guiding principle that anonymous places on the Internet tend to encourage bad behavior and discourage good behavior. We want them to learn that lesson because formspring will be passé tomorrow (it actually sort of already is), and they have to be able to apply the same principles to the next new thing.

Rachel Simmon's gut instinct reaction and advice to parents is summed up in her point:

So what to do? Here’s what I suggest. Start a conversation with your daughter about Formspring. Ask her if people at school use it (don’t start off by grilling her about what she does or she may scare and fly away). Ask her what she thinks of it. Then ask her if she uses it.

If she says yes, tell her she’s banned for life from the website. Period.

This completely misses the mark. If you think you can solve problems by banning use, you're in for real trouble when kids experience the same problems in new venues - they won't tell you when they stumble into a mess for fear that you'll ban them from it. Prepare them for the world they are living in. Teach them about how it works. Set family expectations and guidelines. Connecting the tragedy of a girl with serious psychological issues to a website is hyperbole, and won't get you very far in setting your kids up for success.

Ms. Simmons, if you're reading, I'd love to talk to you more about this.

Posted via web from arvind's posterous

arvind s. grover

I am a progressive educator, a podcaster (, a blogger, and dean of faculty of JK-11 school (building a high school) in New York City.