A teenager tweets before committing suicide and no one responds. What does it say about social media and youth?
Last week, an 18 year old high school student committed suicide. Ashley Billasano, a student at Rosenberg’s BF Terry High School turned to Twitter for six hours prior to taking her own life. She posted 144 tweets to her Twitter page which had 500 followers. Chief Craig Brady from the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Department noted that: ““It’s obvious she needed somebody to talk to and that’s what I believe those tweets were. She was trying to communicate and trying to get people to talk to her”. In an attempt to prevent other teens from taking similar action, the police have deleted the tweets and kept details of Billasano’s death somewhat vague.
However, even with limited information, one thing is clear: Ashley wanted to be heard and no one was listening. In the 144 tweets, Ashley detailed years of sexual abuse from family members and other adults. She also tweeted about how she had been forced into prostitution. Apparently, she tried to seek justice for what happened to her but struggled with the legal system. Ashley Escamilla, Billasano’s classmate and friend, notes that, ‘She said police and CPS acted like it was nothing. She said it was like they did not want to believe her. So, to go on living when someone hurt her, and no one ever did anything about it – wouldn’t that drive you insane? To feel ignored by people who were supposed to help you. That was crazy.”
Escamilla further believed that Billasano’s suicide and tweets were not random: “’This wasn’t random. She planned this for a reason. She made a decision that this was what she was going to do to get attention.”
While most of the blame has been placed on justice services such as the police, it is difficult to ignore the fact that none of Billasano’s 500 followers responded to six hours worth of desperate tweeting. What does this say about social media users? Well, despite some opinions, it doesn’t necessarily suggest that social media creates an atmosphere where bystanders are anything but innocent. Followers are not necessarily friends, and people aren’t online all the time. It’s entirely possible very few people saw the tweets and those that did may not have taken them seriously. Social media is a place where people exaggerate, particularly teenagers. How is a follower, who may have never met Billasano in real life, supposed to be sure of the sincerity of her tweets? Moreover, presumably, many of the followers were teenagers, and they may not have been equipped to deal with the situation. This is not an excuse, but it is a plausible explanation.
However, what can be taken from this tragic incident is that while there is a heavy emphasis on the impact of cyber-bullying, youth may not be given enough resources to understand the importance of “cyber-helping”. As an article on Gawker aptly asks, “We all know that social media provides fertile ground for cyberbullies; how about the lifesavers and interventionists try to steal away their spotlight?” Parents, adults and educators need to make sure that social media education emphasizes the potential of the medium to help as well as hurt.