When should parental concern overrule internet fame, money-making ability and childlike dreams of grandeur? Where's the line between understandable public outrage and victim blaming? Who is at fault for the life Kiki Kannibal is living and does fault matter here?
In the new issue of Rolling Stone, Sabrina Rubin Erdely outlines in detail the life of 18-year-old Kirsten Ostrenga, starting at age 13, when the child created a MySpace page, dressed up in provocative scene-queen outfits and amassed a following of tens of thousands. It's long, but I found it worth the read.
All over this article there are tales of harassment, death threats, home vandalism, even rape by a boyfriend Kiki met online. I teared up reading some of the stories. Throughout it all, Kiki's parents looked on, helplessly. They saw the hate mail: "I know where you live and I'm gonna kill your fucking cat." They saw the death threats: "I'll fucking murder you little girl." They allowed her boyfriend to stay in their home, despite his strange actions as his relationship with their daughter progressed because they "couldn't figure out how to kick him out." They watched their daughter dwindle to 72 pounds, and through it all, they never stepped in, they never took her off the internet.
Cathy and Scott Ostrenga say they suggested leaving MySpace.
Kiki protested: "If you take me off the Internet, the bullies will win.""
But on the internet, there is never any winner. You cannot win against internet bullies. You're never going to convince them that they should either leave you alone or like you. By sticking it out through the hatred and the threats, you may feel you've won by not giving up. You may show the world, or the readers of Rolling Stone Magazine, but you haven't won. The bullies are still looking up your address; they're still fantasizing about your humiliation or death. You'll never show them. In fact, the closest you could probably come to winning this "game" is by stopping to play. The internet sucks you in; it seems like the entire world, when, really, it's an alternate world. It will survive without you, and you will survive without it. Only by stepping back (for more than three weeks) will someone embroiled in true internet fame and drama be able to appropriate it a correct amount of importance. It is impossible to see while you are in it. I imagine doubly so for a teenager.
So, instead of leaving, Kiki went further, joined more sites including Stickham.com. But with every site comes its sister snark site, and as Kiki was dancing around in her underwear in a silly girl game of fun for her fans, her haters were congregating, twisting her image and spending endless hours ripping her apart.
What did her parents think of the videos she made? They thought they were cute.
""We've always had a philosophy of letting the kids express their creativity, as long as they're not harming themselves," explains Scott softly. "There's always been supervision behind it. But we've been more permissive from a certain perspective."
"Cathy advised her daughter to take a "block and delete" strategy against unwanted commenters, banishing them from her chat room when they posted vulgar statements like "I want to put my cock in your mouth.""
To their credit, the family moved. Scott took a large paycut and they lodged with the children's grandmother. They had to change their lives, their financial situation and their location, and still Kiki blogged.
Eventually, the Ostrengas took action against the drama site filling its pages with photoshopped images of and snark posts devoted to their daughter. The site's owner and administrator, who according to Rolling Stone, has an unhealthy obsession with Kiki, wrote them a scathing reply...blaming them for his actions.
"If she were my own child I would have taken that fucking computer and Sidekick away a long time ago," wrote the administrator, presumably Stone. "If you had your daughter's best interests at heart, you would put an end to the 'Kiki Kannibal' fame that is obviously so unhealthy at her age."
He's wrong in blaming them for his actions, but his point is one that resonates with me as I also would have "taken that fucking computer and Sidekick away a long time ago." Where is the line? I can't find it, but I know for me personally, it was crossed well before now.
The Stones article says, "The reality is, there are few repercussions for online harassment. The Communications Decency Act protects Internet publishers from being sued for content — allowing people to post virtually anything without fear of consequences. Finding some kind of balance between free speech and privacy online will almost certainly become one of the major legal battles of the century. For now, however, content providers like Stone are nearly untouchable."
With legal repercussion out of the equation, the "battle" remains between poster, snarker and harasser. But the "battle" could end with a blackened screen.Walk away.
"I messed up as a parent. I did so much wrong," Cathy Ostrenga confesses through tears.
And yet, still, Kiki blogs.
It doesn't matter whose fault it is. The fault clearly lies with the people who would harass, threaten and stalk a young girl. But the fact of the matter is, their actions have become her reality...a reality that she had the power to walk away from at any point. Now that Kiki is 18, it is up to her to make that decision or not. But when she was 13, when she was 15, when she was 17, it was up to her parents. As guardians, we must protect our children. It's not our fault when things go wrong. That has nothing to do with the fact that things sometimes do go wrong and it is our responsibility above all else, beyond the blame game, to protect our children. If we don't, many times, no one will.
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Photo Credit: Hannaford.