Teen was bullied online, and now he’s gone

Published 5:20 am Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Somewhere in your school, or your child’s school, there may be a student suffering from the same kind of emotional pain that must have overcome Channing Smith in his darkest hour.

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Channing, a 16-year-old Tennessee high school junior, took his own life on Sept. 23 after sexually explicit text messages he’d exchanged with a male classmate were posted on social media, according to his family.

“He was absolutely humiliated,” his older brother, Joshua Smith, told the New York Times last week, adding that “there was no way he could have gone to school afterward.”

Joshua Smith has told news media outlets that his brother had not shared his sexual orientation before his death, and that investigators told the family that Channing’s messages were leaked on Instagram and Snapchat. In Channing’s final Instagram post, according to the Times, he wrote, “I really hate how I can’t trust anyone because those I did were so fake.”

The Smith family wants a thorough investigation of what it believes was an extreme case of social media bullying a well-known but still prevalent problem in the digital age.

An alarming 2018 Pew Research Center report found that 59 percent of U.S. teens said they had been bullied or harassed online. And one of the six types of harassment they identified was “having explicit images of them shared without their consent.” The other five were “offensive name calling,” “spreading of false rumors,” “receiving explicit images they didn’t ask for,” “constant asking of where they are, what they’re doing, who they’re with, by someone other than a parent” and “physical threats.”

Pew also reported that 90 percent of teens believe online harassment is a problem that affects people their age, while 63 percent say it is a major problem. They also don’t think teachers, social media companies and politicians are doing much to address the issue.

Social media harassment doesn’t always end in tragedy, but lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students may be more vulnerable when abused online. Studies have found that they are more likely to be bullied and that they suffer from depression at higher rates than their straight peers. Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth also are more likely to contemplate suicide or attempt suicide, according to studies compiled by the Trevor Project, a national organization that focuses on crisis intervention and suicide prevention.

“We keep thinking that we’re seeing greater (LGBT) acceptance among young people, but I don’t think that we’re there yet,” Sue Abderholden, executive director of Minnesota’s National Alliance on Mental Illness, told an editorial writer. “If you’re different in any way, you’re going to be targeted.”

There’s more to learn about what led to Channing Smith’s death, but it’s a hopeful sign that in the days after his suicide, students at his school started a Facebook group called “Justice for Channing” and organized a rally. They want to make sure their late classmate is not forgotten, and by going public they’re also helping increase awareness of the dangers of social media bullying.

Getting help

If you or someone you know is facing a mental health crisis, text MN to 741741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

For resources designed to help schools and community members address bullying, trauma and other mental health concerns, visit the Minnesota Department of Education’s School Safety Technical Assistance Center at http://bit.ly/2VcWXqh.