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.”

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