“Get back in.” Those were the three words that prompted a judge to convict Michelle Carter of involuntary manslaughter in 2017 — words she texted to her long-distance boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, in 2014. Roy, 18, who suffered from depression, had filled his pickup truck with carbon monoxide in an attempt to kill himself. And Carter’s message, one of many, was encouraging him to follow through. Which he did.
The story captivated the country at the time, but after making headlines throughout the hearings and sentencing, the unique death-by-text case fell out of the news cycle. Until, that is, Carter filed an appeal to her 15-month sentence on Monday —two coincidental days before HBO released its highly-anticipated, two-part documentary on the case, I Love You, Now Die.
Carter, now petitioning to the Supreme Court, is hoping for redemption. But if SCOTUS does decide to review it, the move could have far-reaching effects on electronic communication and the digital-age generation — especially in a time when the aggressive phrase “go kill yourself” is not a rarity.
“The last three years, these kinds of messages are becoming more common,” Barbara Greenberg, PhD, a Connecticut-based adolescent psychologist, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s a message of hate. ‘You are so useless, go kill yourself.’”
Cases where such extreme and threatening words are used are being seen more regularly in the news cycle, with examples from as recently as February, in which a 12-year-old girl in Wisconsin received physical notes from classmates telling her to end her own life. Others involve celebrities, politicians and young kids who are sending and receiving these messages online.
Still, Greenberg says that because of the amount of communication that kids and teens are engaging in — via texting, Instagram direct messaging and Snapchatting — there are countless instances that are going unreported, either because the sender has anonymity or the receiver feels ashamed. And even though, in Carter’s case, her words led to a tragedy, Julianna Miner, professor of global and community health at George Mason University and author of the forthcoming Raising a Screen Smart Kid , says that some don’t even consider the use of “go kill yourself” to be serious.
In other words, they liken suicide references to “trash talk.”
In a chapter of her book focused on the social culture of video games in particular, Miner spoke to a young adult gamer who confirmed this — telling her that “kill yourself” is a normal thing to hear while interacting in the world of digital gaming.
“It can get really bad, but you can’t take it seriously. You hear things like ‘Kill yourself’; ‘Go drink bleach’; ‘Your mother should have swallowed you,’” the source told Miner. “I mean, those are normal comments in some games. You would hear that every day.”
Miner herself says that the language “can border on abusive,” but reiterates to Yahoo Lifestyle that the people using it don’t see it that way.
“It’s maybe not dissimilar to locker room talk, where the culture is around it being filled with young adolescent, hormone pumping dudes, under the influence of adrenaline,” Miner says.
Adds Greenberg, “Teens have a lot of trouble with impulse control. So you have social media, you have the elements of anonymity, you have the teen brain, which is not a very well-regulated brain. It’s a whole combination of factors.”
Although numerous instances show a teen’s ability to write the harsh messages and press send, the Carter case is one illustration of that same adolescent’s inability to understand that there may be consequences.
Miner offers two theories as to why this is, including the “cockpit effect,” which allows somebody behind a screen to feel less responsible for their actions because the reaction from the receiving end isn’t immediate or tangible. Another is the disinhibited behavior that teens are now hardwired with, because they’ve grown up with so much technology that’s allowed them to be impulsive.
Although the professor argues that these are inevitable results of the digital age, she says there remains “an ethical and moral responsibility to be a good person and not to cause harm to others.” She’s hopeful that the Carter case is finally providing a legal consequence for something people should already know is wrong.
Still, kids need to be further educated on the topic and exposed to communication offline. “I think it really just comes down to empathy for other people and the way that you enhance empathy is by making sure that your kids have meaningful personal relationships with other people,” Miner says.
And while nobody can really know what it will take for kids to understand the impact of their words, the tragedy that took place between Roy and Carter is likely a strong place to start. “I don’t think that they are aware of how powerful these messages can be, which is why I think it would be a good thing if Carter stays in jail and free speech doesn’t hold up,” Greenberg says. “This should be part of social psychology classes, the Michelle Carter Effect.”
If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.
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