Rutgers Suicide: Internet Humiliation Trauma for Teen


The brains of people in late adolescence still are developing, making some unusually sensitive to any assault on their psyches.

"They are very prone to take things to an extreme," Lieberman said. "So what may be an insult or a setback to an adult, to an adolescent is the end of the world."

They're also more impulsive at this time of life, which can magnify the potential for self-harm.

"Something happens, they've got to take care of it right away. They can't sit with it or try to work through it or not react to it," Lieberman pointed out. "We know from tons and tons of research on suicide that the critical element, why people who have been depressed for years, or who have some difficulty... at some point commit suicide, has to do with impulsivity."

In Clementi's case, it's possible no one saw signs of the decision to end his life. According to the Web site Gawker, he posted comments to a gay website the morning of his death in which he sounded calm and collected and indicated he'd written to his resident advisor about the incident.

Being 'Outed' to the World

Nevertheless, the impact of being surreptitiously filmed in a sexual situation is devastating -- regardless of whether the victim is in late adolescence, noted Gershen Kaufman, an emeritus psychology professor at Michigan State University and author of the 1996 book "The Psychology of Shame."

"Anybody could be potentially overwhelmed by the experience to the point of thinking that the only alternative is suicide," Kaufman said.

"This is more like a grown-up version of bullying," said Norma P. Simon, a retired psychologist in Pelham, N.Y. "I've had people say it feels like being raped, or being brutalized. It's abuse."

But a major difference in the Rutgers episode is that what in past years might have been akin to a schoolyard humiliation, confined in time and place, can become universally available to others in the Internet age.

The combination of the Internet and web cams makes possible things "that hadn't been possible before," Kaufman said. "In the past it would have been something dumb and stupid that would have been annoying and embarrassing, but not mortifying to this degree."

The impact of the incident may have been made worse by that Clementi was reportedly captured in a romantic encounter with another young man. Public revelation of a person's sexuality can be tremendously humiliating.

"The perfect analogy in the straight world is when the police used to round up men who frequented prostitutes and publicly paraded them and had the newspaper run their pictures," Kaufman said. "Public humiliation is a profound humiliation, and to have it broadcast on the Internet magnifies the experience because it can't be escaped."

When a Prank Goes Too Far

Clementi's roommate, Ravi, and another Rutgers student, Molly Wei, have each been charged with two counts of invasion of privacy.

"They probably thought it was a prank," said Kaufman. "They're going to have to live with the fact that they directly caused the death of another human being. That's going to be on their consciences for the rest of their lives."

Lieberman said their behavior was sadistic and self-indulgent, yet characteristic of people who haven't yet matured.

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