Megan Meier of Dardenne Prairie, St. Charles County in Missouri, U.S.A. was a teenage girl at a crossroads in her young life, like many 13-year olds; no longer a child but not yet a woman. She met a 16-year old boy, Josh Evans, through her page on MySpace.com, the social networking site. They had a romantic online relationship, as these things go, but never met. They never even talked over the phone. But in virtual reality, feelings are just as intense as the real world. According to a report in the New York Times,
“she thought he was the cutest boyfriend she ever had”
According to the NYT news item, on Oct. 15, 2006, Josh suddenly turned mean. He called Megan names, and later they traded online insults. Other youngsters who had linked to Josh’s MySpace profile joined the increasingly bitter exchange and began sending profanity-laden messages to Megan. The next day, in his final message, said Megan’s father, Ron Meier, Josh wrote,
“The world would be a better place without you.”
Sobbing, Megan ran into her bedroom closet. Her mother found her there, just 15 minutes later, hanging from a belt, another fatal teen statistic.
But Josh Evans never existed. He was an online character created by Lori Drew, the 47-year old mother of Megan’s former best friend, who lived four houses down the street from the Meiers. Mrs. Drew created the character “Josh Evans”, according to a neighbor, because she “going to mess with Megan” for apparently breaking up the once-close friendship with her daughter. Lori Drew did more than that. She drove Megan Meir to kill herself.
Despite the cruel and vicious nature of Mrs. Drew’s acts, St. Charles County officials could not charge her with a crime. A St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department spokesman, Lt. Craig McGuire, said that what Ms. Drew did
“might’ve been rude, it might’ve been immature, but it wasn’t illegal”
. Mrs. Drew herself expressed little remorse, callously blaming Megan for being suicide-prone.
Which brings us back to the question of cyberspace ethics, and to what extent one should be held accountable for online behavior. No law defines what liability should be imposed on someone who perpetrates an online hoax which, indirectly, leads to person’s death. For example, the Philippine Electronic Commerce Act penalizes unlawful acts like hacking, piracy or consumer fraud, but only, of course, in the context of online transactions. What will protect our children from the likes of the talented Mrs. Drew, whose skill at creating and playing an online “avatar” snuffed out the life of Megan Meier?