Youth, blackmail and the things you can't erase online

Cyber-blackmail has been implicated in the suicide of 17-year-old Daniel Perry

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Anyone who manages to crawl out of puberty unscathed would never, ever go back. Most will remember the burning rage, the oppressive gloom, the first sexual attraction, the obsessive need for privacy. Any small, rubbish things that happen in your day-to-day life become the centre of the universe. This is the essence of teenage narcissism, completely natural, entirely unconstructive, and always bizarre to recall once you’ve made it through to adulthood.

And it’s what makes the news that 17-year-old Daniel Perry has killed himself after being exploited online, so desperate, and particularly cruel. There was no point to Daniel’s death: had sexual images of him been shown to his family, they wouldn’t have loved him any less, he would have recovered and he’d still be alive.

In this particular case, one of the glaring issues is the paradox of our notion of sexuality: we live in a society that brazenly disseminates sexual imagery, yet attaches an inordinate amount of indignity and embarrassment to it once it’s realised. A sort of “Look but don’t touch” culture. It’s so easy, almost normal, to send sexual images to others, to speak sexually to strangers, yet we shame those who are found out – particularly if they are uncomfortably young.

Most parents struggle to keep up with the rate at which communication technology is developing, and especially the rate at which children can get their hands on it. It’s worth considering that in 10 years we’ve gone from panicking about internet chat rooms, to unbridled horror at sexting and webcams, to frantically trying to grapple with the various modes of social media as they spring up with increasing speed. The next strange and unfamiliar territory, no doubt, is the smartphone apps like Grindr and Tinder, which use GPS technology to facilitate meetings with strangers nearby, with the strong implication of casual sex.

There are probably large numbers of young people engaging in what you might prudishly term “age-inappropriate behaviour” online. I can’t speak for teenagers who use sites like Ask.fm, but some friends and I did use internet chat rooms between the ages of about 13 and 14. (I am now 21). The sort of explicitly sexual language and imagery we were exposed to was baffling at the time, but now the fact that I put myself in that position genuinely makes my stomach churn. There is no way in hell I would have ever told my parents, and the creeping shame I felt, that I’d let my curiosity get the better of me, isn’t something you ever really forget. 

There will be those who say the sort of appalling behaviour that Daniel Perry was subjected to will always exist, that technology just affords cowardly, seemingly morally-barren individuals a veil of anonymity that gives them a sort of superficial courage. True, to an extent: let’s not get carried away with the idea that if we could press a big ‘delete’ button on the Internet, we’d be living in a glorious utopia.

But this doesn’t give enough weight to the astounding ability of modern technology to extensively document everything it’s fed. You can make one dumb decision when you’re a teenager, and you might never forget it. You make yourself shockingly vulnerable, in all your youthful imperfection, to people who never have to face the emotional consequences of their actions, because they can always just turn off their computer, because they’ll probably never meet you. That is the real danger of the internet, and that is what will be so difficult to address.

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