Rehtaeh Parsons and the problem of bystanders

No investigation will answer why none of her peers spoke up in the first place

A deafening silence

Andrew Vaughan/CP

The break, though too late for Rehtaeh Parsons, was nevertheless welcome. What police described as a “credible source” had offered information on the origin of pictures allegedly showing Parsons, then 15, being raped at a party—photos her schoolmates in Cole Harbour, N.S., shared widely via text messages, to the girl’s humiliation and despair. An RCMP investigation into the incident led nowhere, and on April 4, after months of online bullying linked to the still-circulating pictures, Parsons hanged herself in the bathroom of her family home. Mounties held out hope this week that their new lead would help them crack the case. “We’re back in business,” declared spokesman Cpl. Scott MacCrae. But no investigation seems likely to answer another, far-reaching question arising from Parsons’s death: when the pictures first emerged, why did none of her peers speak up?

Social media experts refer to them as “bystanders.” For every bully gleefully mini-casting embarrassing images, or mean girl tapping out snarky comments, they say, there are recipients in Canadian high schools too scared or complacent to voice their disgust at what they’re seeing. In the case of Rehtaeh Parsons, there might have been dozens. Photos of her alleged rape at the hands of four boys spread for days around Cole Harbour High School with nary a peep to authorities from those who received it, according to those close to the 17-year-old. “[The image] quickly went viral,” wrote Parsons’s mother, Leah, in a wrenching online message posted days after her daughter’s death. “Rehtaeh was suddenly shunned by almost everyone she knew.”

This syndrome—familiar from past cases of so-called “cyberbullying”—has renewed concerns about the moral state of a generation that experiences much of life through pixellated screens. Members of the smartphone generation increasingly treat themselves and their peers as entertainment, explains Jesse Miller, a B.C.-based consultant who advises schools and companies on social media. Boys, in particular, can gain social cachet by being “first reporter on the scene” to deliver sensational imagery to their peers, he says. “If there’s a photo of someone in your class and you’re the one who can show it to your buddies, you’re going to be the kid who gets that much more attention through the course of a day.”

The result is a sense of detachment that begets indifference toward those on screen—and peer pressure discouraging conscience-stricken teens from rocking the boat. While most young people understand that nasty treatment of their classmates online is wrong, says Miller, many fear the bullies will target them if they speak up. Those closest to the victim, meanwhile, might keep quiet out of misguided respect for the person’s privacy. Some of Parsons’s friends, for instance, have said since her death that Rehtaeh wanted to leave the alleged assault behind her; a boyfriend she began dating a few weeks ago, Mike Wells, told a reporter the two of them didn’t speak of it.

Suppressing an incident, alas, can do lasting damage to a victim, says Ernestine Briggs-King, a child-trauma psychologist at Duke University Medical Center. Therapists call this urge “avoidance,” and it’s a classic sign of post-traumatic stress disorder. “So much more harm can happen when someone’s been traumatized and there’s a lack of response,” Briggs-King says from Durham, N.C. Whatever a victim’s wishes, she adds, an acquaintance with evidence of a crime such as sexual assault should take the information to a responsible adult.

Carol Todd, whose 15-year-old daughter, Amanda, committed suicide last fall after pictures of her topless were distributed online, says kids should be taught that speaking up is a moral and, in many cases, legal, imperative. “It’s a criminal offence to share photos of underage people,” Todd says from her home in Port Coquitlam, B.C. “People with a conscience should report this stuff. You have to do what’s right.”

Todd wonders whether the teens who received pictures of Rehtaeh Parsons properly understood their options. They could have anonymously contacted, a national hotline for reporting online sexual exploitation of children, or a school liaison officer at the local police station. More obvious choices include teachers, principals and parents. Instead, the pictures circulated for several devastating days before Parsons broke down and told her mother, setting off the 17-month emotional tailspain that concluded with the girl’s death. Whether an early complaint by one of her peers might have broken this chain of events will never be known. But the Martin Luther King Jr. quote Rehtaeh posted last month to her Facebook page suggests she longed for even a small show of solidarity: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”


Rehtaeh Parsons and the problem of bystanders

  1. Rome fell over the period of two generations losing a thousand years of culture. Our culture has fallen in case you haven’t noticed. Some people see this a sign of the “end time” so do I. This is a end of culture, community and civility as we have known it. Two Generations! apples don’t fall far the tree.

  2. What gets me is that anyone ever is surprised that kids have littel judgement. I can’t imagine anything different happening with technology when I was in high school and people got “assaulted”. Adults need to set the rules. I think we will figure that out eventually.

  3. “Carol Todd, whose 15-year-old daughter, Amanda, committed suicide last
    fall after pictures of her topless were distributed online”. One has to recognize here that the main problem is the repression of sexuality in North American society. If this 15-year-old girl had been photographed topless on many beaches in Europe, she would have thought nothing of those photos being distributed on a social networking site.

    • So you are saying that in Europe it is ok to take pictures of a girl being raped and circulated? Wow, I knew Europe had little morals, but not that bad!

      • If you had actually read the post, you would’ve realized that it referred to topless images, not rape. Adding erroneous insinuations does nothing to strengthen your point. In fact, she willingly revealed herself. (Though, it does not make the distribution of such images any more acceptable.)

  4. I am not sure that there is so much “indifference” or a sense of detachment to what is seen on the screen as real fear that you will be the next one targeted for bullying IF you break ranks and report the crime. After all, many of these perpetrators are the popular people in school. It takes a very brave person to go up against a “gang” of your peers who are using intimidation to keep people in line.
    When my daughter told me about a friend hers who was getting drunk at school and driving drunk, I alerted his family. There was a backlash. My daughter has strong principles about was is right and she only cared for the well being of her friend and the people he encountered on the road ways. She told the people who were nasty to her this. I am proud of her but she is a special case. As a parent, you have to be willing to go out the line too. I would have moved my daughter to a different school or home schooled her IF the backlash from her disclosure had been to harsh. As parents we cannot be above taking risks to do what’s right. That is the only way our young, vulnerable people will learn to role model the behavior.

    • There’s probably a lot of truth to that. Also interesting to note that drunk driving, like sexual assault, is something we think of as being widely condemned, and yet when an example was brought to light in your case everyone seemed to be “shut up and let it go!”

  5. i can’t wait to get my hands on the names of those statutory rapists.

  6. During the interview I listened to Ms Parsons voice her acceptance about how the Prime Minister separated “Bullying” from “Criminal Activities” I believe this separation is the breading ground for more ambiguity for what is being done in society today. I would rather see “Bullying” become a criminal activity rather than defining when “Bullying” ceases to be “Children Misbehaving”, and becomes a “criminal Act”. All bullying is criminal, regardless of how “harmful” others see it. If it harms the person being bullied, it should be classified as a criminal act. This evolution of thought is becoming more prominent in our society, like in universities that now separate “Hazing” from “Acceptable initiation activities”. Please push this mindset and stop the senseless loss of innocent young life at the gratification of criminal lust.

  7. Every person who had this picture should be brought up on charges. Doubly so for circulating it. And with a little research they can find where it started and arrest that person for being a part of the original assault. These brats need to be caned!

  8. You can not compare things in school now to the 60 or the 80ies…..Respect for others has to come from the family home as does the consequences of bad behaviour…This does not occur any more in our ‘political correct society ‘ Schools do nothing especially if the principal is a female…No thought of reprisal against the perpetrators or their families…Do the parents have businesses which could be ruined by adverse publicity especially in smaller communities…That where 1 would start…SM

  9. As much as my heart cries for the Todd and Parsons families and certainly it does with out question , the assumption it is a legal imperative to report crime is not at all true in Canada. It is at your own demise to report crime as Governmental agencies enforce silence. The worst case examples comes from where a child pornographer Jacque Tremblay was not only allowed to make decisions on the Ontario College of Teachers he signed a guilty decision suspending a teacher for 24 months from teaching who protested sex offenders teaching in the Province of Ontario.( Reference search “Bad Teachers.” Toronto Star ) My heart cries for all children, boys or girls, who are hounded to death. My heart cries for the victims in Canada who have no rights while criminals have all rights paid for by our tax dollars. Real third party investigations should not be a right it should be an obligation to all people at the receiving end of a crime.

  10. What shocks me is that none of these teens mentioned this to a parent? or showed it to a parent? My kids would have done that and from there it would have been reported. Do none of these kids have relationships with their parents that they would go to them for guidance? Do parents not talk to their kids about what is going on in school or at a party? I certainly asked questions and my daughter was not afraid to speak to me about all sorts of things. I am surprised and saddened that I would be one of the few whose child would have spoken up and confided in them. Really ???? Until my children are 18 yrs old I AM responsible for them. To raise them into caring law abiding citizens.

    • You would be surprised at the difference between what kids tell their parents to placate them and what actually goes on in their lives.

  11. I saw the posters that the boys families posted and the comment they made that the sex was “consensual”. How could parents think think that 4 boys getting one girl drunk and having sex with her was consensual, thank god they were not my parents.

  12. What would sending the photos to police really accomplish? The police already had the photo (the rape and photo was brought to their attention 3 days after the rape) and nothing much was done.