Teens Who Murder Over Loss of Phones, Video Games
Teens obsessed with phones, games unable to cope with being cut off by parents.
Feb. 5, 2009— -- When a 13-year-old Buffalo, N.Y., girl decided to exact revenge on the grandmother who took away her cell phone, authorities say she planned carefully.
Jermea Simmons allegedly waited a week, then packed her clothes, doused her house with lighter fluid and set it ablaze while 10 members of her family slept inside, including her 8-year-old sister who suffers from cerebral palsy. Her step-grandfather didn't make it out alive.
"I thought I was close to her," said her grandmother, Gennie Fairfax, who escaped the June 2007 fire. "I wasn't angry. I was distraught. I didn't understand it."
Simmons is one of an increasing number of teens who have made headlines for apparently resorting to violence in the face of losing their beloved computers, video games and cell phones. It's a type of violence that shocks generations that came of age before the home electronics revolution, but not the experts who study today's kids.
From the Michigan teen who reportedly shot both of his parents over a cell phone last year to the Ohio teen convicted last month of killing his mother over a video game, experts say a small subset of young people are ill-equipped to balance their electronic life with the real world.
When their whole world is wrapped up in text messaging or video games, being cut off leaves them frantic.
Peter Sheras, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, said there's no hard evidence that points to why this sort of extreme violence has become the reaction for some teens as it's a fairly new phenomenon.
Teens, in general, often carry a lot of anger and "incredible levels of frustration as they are trying to flex their muscles," Sheras said.
Today's teenagers are also so wrapped up in virtual communication, he said, that they are not as equipped to handle inter-personal relationships. Combine that with a media and Internet culture that seems obsessed with extreme behavior, such as the well-publicized beatings posted on YouTube.com, and "we've almost institutionalized rage as a positive behavior," he said.
"These kids have no sense of perspective," said Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer and founder of WiredSafety.org. "If you hit them where it matters ... they will react."
Simmons has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Vincent Fairfax, according to local news reports, and her case has been transferred to family court. Gennie Fairfax said she has not yet apologized for the fire.
"I don't hate her, but I think what she did was wrong," Fairfax said.
The fire, she said, appeared to have been set at the door of Jermea's uncle, Darran Booker. It then swept through the house, destroying all the family's belongings. Fairfax said the alarm above her bedroom door never went off and she suspects her granddaughter may have disabled it beforehand.
"She was angry," she said. "I wouldn't wish it on nobody."
Fairfax had raised Jermea and her siblings since the teen was 5 years old. Fairfax said she was teaching her granddaughter to cook and to braid hair. She'd had her phone taken away before as punishment.
"If I had to do it all over again, she would never get a cell phone," Fairfax said.
Fairfax said her granddaughter would use the phone to talk to boys and, sometimes, to pick fights with other girls at school. When Fairfax took away Jermea's phone for the last time, she also yanked her access to the teenager's MySpace account after finding out she'd been talking to adults "about things she shouldn't have been."
"No kids should be on MySpace at that age," she added.
Aftab said parents all too often take the easy way out and choose to placate their kids with more games and electronics, rather than take a chance at disciplining them. If computers or cell phones or video games interfere with day-to-day life, she said, that's a red flag that something is wrong.