When an Internet Stranger Is in Trouble, Do You Have to Help?

A #followateen tragedy

Sharing frivolous dramas and half-formed longings on social media comes as naturally as breathing for teenagers. Which helps explain why #followateen was so ripe for easy—and relatively harmless—mocking. The hashtag started last year when a group of adults began following random teenagers on Twitter, mostly so the grown-ups could, as a lark, share the hilarious things their teen might tweet.

I didn't follow a teen, though, because I had already had one. I started following her in 2003, after discovering her Myspace page through a local message board. That linked to her Xanga account, and from there, an AIM account, and various other 2003-era social media sites. I started following her out of boredom or procrastination, or maybe just the relative dearth of distractions on the Web in 2003. I became fascinated by my teen in the same way one might become invested in a reality TV star. She published deeply intimate details of her life for everyone to see, though few probably did—except for me and my then-boyfriend. The crushes, trips to the mall, American Idol aspirations, and parental rebellions of a high schooler I’d never met became my go-to entertainment. It was harmless, I thought, and funny.

My teen had an emo sensibility—black Converse All Stars, Hot Topic baby tees, and Buddy Holly glasses, which were much more of a statement in 2003. At some point she got a beauty-mark piercing. Her singer-songwriter ambitions skewed Fiona Apple. And even as I mocked the high school cliches—boys are mean, girls are mean, parents just don't understand, etc.—I related to her. I was, after all, only four years older than my teen. So I nodded in solidarity through her detailed, dramatic tales of not being allowed to go to a certain party, or to buy a certain pair of shoes. She'd describe every second of a petty confrontation with a mean girl, only to have the mean girls litter her comments section with more petty meanness. It was standard high school stuff, and high schoolers—yes, all of them, including me, including my teen, including you—are the worst.

But when things took a dark turn, I had to stop reading. I feared something bad could happen to her, and I didn't know what my role, as a total stranger, should be.

* * *

My teen started modeling for SuicideGirls, a softcore porn site with an early '00s "alternative" aesthetic; I’d found a link to her photos on her Myspace page. Through that group, she'd met a 26-year-old boyfriend. She was barely 18. Even though our age difference was small, I snapped into concerned adult mode: Did her parents know about this? Was she mature enough for this?

But also, was it any of my goddamn business? Even though I felt like I intimately knew my teen, I was still just a creep stalking a kid's blog.

More disturbing than the porn was my teen's secret anorexia diaries. Across various Xanga accounts, she meticulously tracked her daily calorie intake (often below 600 per day). She'd post inspirational photos ("thinspiration") of rail-thin models, and tally up her binges and purges. "I'm sinking deeper and deeper back into anorexia," she wrote. "Believing that food is disgusting, that we are all gluttonous fat pigs that consume calorie after calorie." This was in the early days of the Pro-Ana movement, where women promote anorexia and bulimia, personified respectively as "Ana" and "Mia," as a lifestyle rather than a disease. My teen would faint. She'd go to the hospital. She'd talk to a therapist. She'd have passive-aggressive conversations about food with people who just didn't understand. She'd eat only ice cubes and gum (10 calories). On those days, she wrote, she felt "light and weightless, like the wind would carry [her] away at any moment."

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Erin Griffith writes about startups and technology for Fortune

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