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."

Once my teen's problems got serious, it wasn't fun anymore, it was scary. At that point, I was possibly the only person who had connected my teen's various accounts and could trace these anonymous diaries back to their writer. I probably knew more about her than her family and friends did. Maybe not. But I knew when she lost her virginity, and with whom, and how it made her feel. I knew about her experimenting with smoking and drinking. I knew her deepest insecurities. I knew she hated her therapist. Did I have an obligation to say something? To essentially dox my teen? To whom? And what kind of reaction would I get? Excuse me, Mr. So-and-So, I've been stalking your daughter on the Internet for the past two years, and I'm concerned about—what's that? You're calling the cops? 

My teen—this human being who was clearly suffering—had no idea I was out there reading. I didn't feel comfortable interfering, but I also couldn't reconcile the feeling that something horrible could happen. She could die, and I could have done something to prevent it.

So I stopped reading.

And a few years later, she died.

* * *

By then, I hadn't thought about her for so long that the news took days to sink in. I felt like a monster for having ever used her life as entertainment, even if she had no idea. When a celebrity dies, the entire country mourns it together. Stars usually choose to become part of our collective culture. But when a random person you followed on the Internet dies, there's no way to talk about your sadness without sounding insane. "Wait, why were you stalking a teenager online?" my friends asked. "How did you know this girl again?” “Did she know you?” “Did you ever actually meet her?" And, finally: "What is wrong with you?"

The only explanation I can muster is that it's very easy for a bored, lonely person to get sucked into weird corners of the Internet. It had started innocently enough. Before you know it, you're reading someone's secret eating-disorder diary, and clicking through her portfolio of pinup shots. That was a decade ago, but by now we've all been there on some level: How easy is it, on Facebook, to click, scroll, and tab yourself into a weird, voyeuristic place? One where you have to stop and ask yourself: “How did I get here?"

When I found out my teen had died, I almost felt relief that it wasn't related to anorexia, that the problems I knew she had weren’t the ones that killed her. She'd been given a bad shot of cortisone related to scoliosis; her father later sued the hospital for malpractice. And I was surprised, at the time, to find many of her social media accounts had already disappeared—she'd deleted some, and others were wiped as various Web 2.0 services cleaned house, were sold, or went under. Even the local message board had redesigned and deleted old postings, severing the original link to my teen. It was the first time I'd realized how quickly the Internet was renovating and redesigning itself—how dramatically it was changing. And how, in the process, a surprisingly large chunk of our digital histories had simply evaporated.