This summer's parenting lesson is called "Jessi Slaughter." Jessi is the online name of an 11-year-old girl from North Florida whose foul-mouthed tantrum on the Internet spawned a viral spiral of disaster.
The cyber terrorism unleashed on this little girl and her family started when Jessi posted a video in response to website rumors about her and a band called Blood on the Dance Floor. In her initial five-minute video, the middle-schooler vents over her webcam that she's prettier and more popular than her critics. Then she proceeds to drop a series of f-bombs, vowing to "pop a glock" in her tormentors' mouths and make them a "brain slushy," among other startling threats.
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The YouTube video spawned a frenzy of Internet rage. Online harassers, aka "trolls," started picking on Jessi relentlessly. They accessed personal info in her Facebook account and started circulating her real name, phone number, address and links to all her social networking accounts. Pranksters spammed her Facebook and MySpace accounts, had pizzas delivered to her house, phoned her home with death threats, started a Craigslist rumor that she was running a call girl network, triggered a police investigation, spread Internet rumors that she committed suicide and basically tormented her to pieces.
Bewildered and hysterical, Jessi continued the train wreck with two more tear-filled videos. In one, her clueless father is on his knees in the background, sputtering mad and screaming at the PC in his daughter's bedroom (www.youtube.com/watch?v=scyGo7tkC4I). He lets loose on his daughter's nameless, faceless tormentors with net-unsavvy threats that the "cyberpolice" are onto the case and he's going to "backtrace" them. He uses a series of unfortunate phrases, such as "you dun goofed" and "consequences will never be the same," which only fed the trolls more fodder, spawning dozens of spoof videos, remixes, photo-shopped photos and memes.
Florida's Department of Children and Families reportedly got involved, responding to tips that Jessi was planning to hurt herself. DCF took her into overnight custody and gave her a psychological evaluation. Her family claims to be afraid to leave the house.
I know I'm supposed to feel sorry for Jessi's parents, but I'm struggling. Jessi's mom claims in interviews that she has never seen her daughters' wildly inappropriate videos; that she has no intentions of looking at them and doesn't really spend any time herself on the computer. Still, the mother's voice can be heard in the background in one of her daughter's profanity-laced, tearful appearances. She seems to throw up her arms and walk away. Jessi's parents act like this backlash was unfairly leveled at their daughter. Maybe I'm being harsh, but if your daughter threatens to shoot someone in the mouth on camera, you shouldn't be blaming this entirely on others.
Stupidity and being 11 have gone hand-in-hand since the beginning of time. But with this generation, it's all played out on a worldwide platform. When your kid is spending all her time online and you realize something has gone horribly wrong, it's a parent's responsibility to learn how the Internet works. No parent can know it all. We need to help each other out. Here are some tips I'd like to share with Jessi's mom. Care to add your own?
+ The Internet is not the enemy; it's not your friend, either. It's a great education and social communication tool, but there are certain sites that just aren't acceptable for kids. Jessi's troubles started on StickyDrama, a crowd-sourced gossip website that tweeners really have no business reading, much less chiming in on. Other troll-heavy websites and blog platforms that sped along this disaster: Tumblr, Boing Boing and 4Chan.org. Buzz through your kid's browser history at least once a week. If these sites pop up, start asking questions.
+ Kids should not be using the f-word and threatening to kill people, whether they're online, in the schoolyard or in their homes.
+ Bragging about yourself usually invites criticism. This is an important lesson in the real world and even more so online, where such boasts about wealth, beauty and popularity often invite attacks by trolls, who will hack into your accounts and try to humiliate you.
+ Kids this young should not have YouTube or Facebook accounts. If they do then they should be closely monitored.
+ Web cams should not be on kids' computers and certainly not in their bedrooms. Sure, they're great for keeping in Skype touch with a parent traveling for work or a relative who lives far away, but kids shouldn't have total access to the cams all the time. Jessi is one in a number of "cam girls" who have been celebrated and vilified for their annoying behavior.
+ If your child posts something that prompts ridicule or angry responses, the best thing you can do is delete everything, stay off the Internet for awhile and hope the trolls will get bored and move on to their next target.
+ Too much free time invites disaster. Sign this kid up for sports or music lessons.