On Monday, June 16, 49-year-old Lori Drew pled not guilty in Federal Court to one count of conspiracy and three counts of using a computer to inflict emotional distress (violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act).
Drew, of Dardenne Prairie, Mo., is accused of creating a phony MySpaceaccount, which convinced her teenaged neighbor Megan Meier that a boy named Josh Evans (who never existed) had fallen in love with her, then suddenly came to despise her. In one message, "Evans" wrote Meier that the world would be better off without her. Brokenhearted, Meier hanged herself.
I met Megan's mother Tina, a courageous woman who has become a national crusader against cyberbullying.
There is more at stake here, however, even than that noble goal. The Lori Drew case is another wake-up call that proves how our genuine and exquisite human emotions and vulnerabilities can be tapped and twisted by technologies like the Internet, which can "infect" us with toxic fictions that cause real-life injuries, even death.
This is a time when millions of Americans are using social networks to "connect" with one another without really knowing whether the "individuals" on the other side of those connections are speaking the truth and divulging real insights about themselves, or manufacturing "profiles" in order to manipulate and, ultimately, inflict harm on them. We are attaching ourselves to sometimes-contrived life stories that may have no roots in reality, thereby putting vulnerable individuals at the mercy of cyber-imposters who can emotionally assault from an infinite distance.
Too many of us are primed for these toxic and fictional relationships because the Web encourages them. The business plan of the reprehensible Second Life, for example, is to offer people the opportunity to live alternate existences unfettered by the real facts of their lives.
Webkinz offers children the chance to care for cyberpets that are not real, yet attempt to elicit real emotional connections-like concern for whether the animals are having fun and enjoying their little, animated rooms. This bending of reality is not without consequences. One consequence is that we lose our ability to separate reality from fantasy and become permeable to interpersonal, Internet fraud.
This isn't the fault of MySpace. It is a byproduct of the times and technology and of less socially responsible sites like the ones I have mentioned above.
One way (I hope) people can fight back, is by participating in communities that put truth-telling front and center as a goal. I've created one called Living the Truth. Although that network isn't immune to manipulators, it is filled with thousands of members dedicated to honesty, and therefore, I hope it will be more likely to filter out imposters.
Here's the best antidote, especially for our young people: We must tell them that nothing they experience in cyberspace is as trustworthy as what they see with their own eyes, can touch with their own hands and can feel with their own hearts. We must encourage them to speak openly with us-their parents-and with their siblings and their close friends about their true feelings. We should remind them, always, of the wisdom of the body, the value of physical fitness and of inhaling the real air available only in Nature, not on the Web. We should reaffirm our connection to other real, living beings, like our pets and the endangered species we seek to protect from harm.
The Internet can disconnect us from ourselves and make us vulnerable to others who are using wireless technology to float free of the responsibility for their very real anger and violence. We need to close some of the space that now separates us from one another and from reality. We can't forget to join hands as we join social networks.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His newest book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement. Check out Dr. Ablow's website atlivingthetruth.com.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.