Beaufort sixth-grader who committed suicide chronicled struggles online

rlurye@islandpacket.comMay 7, 2014 

On March 9, Celeste Wills posted an innocent musing to her Facebook wall.

Maybe we aren't alive, she wrote, but are living inside a dream, just a figment of someone else's imagination.

One of the 12-year-old's friends liked her thought-provoking post, as did her parents, Dale and Clarissa Wills, who said they tracked Celeste's use of Facebook and made random checks of her cellphone.

But Dale and Clarissa Wills did not know about Tumblr, a micro-blogging platform used by at least 28 percent of U.S. teens 13 to 17, according to an October 2013 survey from the nonprofit Family Online Safety Institute. After Celeste took her own life April 30, the Wills family learned their Robert Smalls Middle School sixth-grader wrote a Tumblr blog under a pseudonym.

Though children younger than 13 are barred from all social networking sites, Celeste started the blog Oct. 17, about a week after her 12th birthday. She first posted thoughts about suicide in November and continued to share her struggles -- as well as more positive posts about anime (Japanese cartoons), music and the Internet -- over the next five months.

Justin Patchin is co-founder of the Cyberbullying Research Center, an online resource that aims to help teachers, parents and teens work together to prevent cyberbullying. Patchin said many adolescents are migrating beyond mainstream social networking sites, and even parents who monitor their kids vigilantly cannot do so 24 hours a day.

By all accounts, though, the Willses certainly tried to.

For example, when Celeste posted a YouTube video a year ago, she trained her camera on a script in a notebook because, as she wrote on one page, her parents would not let her film the inside of her house.

About 80 percent of parent social-media users connect with their children online, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, and Dale Wills is one of them.

"I love You Children, Raven Wills, Zoe Wills and Celeste Wills," he wrote of his three daughters in December 2012. "I will always do my best to protect you and be ther(e) whenever you need me!!!"

All three girls wrote back.

Yet while Celeste's parents could see her Facebook post March 9, they did not have access to her more troubling thoughts on Tumblr.

"The part of me that wants help is now so small that you couldn't even see it with magnifying glass," Celeste wrote. "All of my bad feelings, and thoughts of suicide (have taken) over my mind. That small part is the only reason I'm typing this."

Celeste knew the phone numbers of several suicide hotlines and the protocol for reporting concerns about the safety of other bloggers. She posted both several times and often encouraged her followers to seek help for depression and bullying. However, friends and family say she didn't tell them she was struggling with either, and Celeste once wrote that she did not stand up to her own bullies.

On one occasion, she lied to a friend who almost found out she was suicidal, Celeste wrote.

The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office is investigating whether Celeste was bullied, though it would not release additional details when asked for them earlier this week.

There is no indication from Celeste's blog or interviews with family and friends that she was cyberbullied. Rather, she wrote, the Internet was often a safe haven from her troubles.

At a community vigil Saturday night, Clarissa Wills counseled other parents to keep close watch on their children's online activities.

Patchin agreed that parents must question kids about the sites and applications they use, especially unfamiliar social networks they hear about in the news or from others. However, he said denying adolescents any privacy online could do more harm than good.

"At some point, we need to give our kids privileges, and responsibility that's appropriate for their developmental stage," said Patchin, a criminal justice professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Ultimately, adults must prepare kids for the day they use technology without supervision, he said.

"Even if they do everything right, there's just no knowing what kind of situation they could get into online," Patchin said.

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

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