SARATOGA -- It has become a depressingly familiar story in the digital age. An alleged sexual assault occurs. Images brazenly are shared electronically. Reputations are destroyed and, in some cases, a humiliated teen even takes his or her own life.
That horrifying chain of events played out shortly after school started in the fall when 15-year-old Audrie Pott, of Saratoga, committed suicide eight days after police say she was assaulted by three boys, who were arrested last week on suspicion of sexual battery and distribution of unlawful material in a case that has sparked national outrage.
Audrie's death is only the latest in a series of cyber-related tragedies fueling a debate about the negative effects of social media -- especially on kids who are anxious to live their lives through electronic devices but unprepared to deal with the sometimes harsh consequences.
A Canadian teen, who allegedly was gang-raped and then horrified to see a photo of the incident circulating among friends, was taken off life support last week after trying to hang herself. Last month, two Steubenville, Ohio, high school football stars were convicted of raping a drunken 16-year-old girl -- an assault that came to light when digital photos were distributed.
"You look at these cases and see how similar they are, and you wonder what's happening in our society right now," said Parry Aftab, founder of advocacy group Stop Cyberbullying. "Something new and terrible is occurring. Why do otherwise normal kids rape people and then brag about it online for cyberglory? These kids are setting off bombs online, and then they explode offline."
Instant communication on cellphones has become increasingly important to teenagers. And teens can have the attitude that if they don't post something on Facebook, then it didn't actually happen. But the full implications of that technology also can be lost on them, and Audrie's death is yet another cautionary tale about the perils of social media.
"As much as the original rape of this young girl was a violation of her soul, you could argue that the suicide was motivated by the public humiliation of the photos rather than the private humiliation she suffered at the party," said Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children's Hospital. "The rape was repeated every time someone passed those photos on. It sure sounds like that's what led her to feel her life was worthless, not the rape itself."
The photos going viral, according to accounts provided by authorities and family attorney Robert Allard, only magnified the teen's emotional pain -- and ultimately became too much to bear.
Audrie, who played musical instruments, loved to sing and enjoyed playing soccer, attended an unsupervised house party Labor Day weekend. Audrie had passed out drunk when she was assaulted by three Saratoga High students, police say.
Allard said digital photos "spread like wildfire" among students, and that seems to be reflected in a series of tortured Facebook postings by Audrie in the days before her Sept. 10 death, including one describing the "worst day in her life."
It was only after her death that a Santa Clara County sheriff's deputy assigned to the school began hearing whispers about the sharing of the images and that her parents became aware of the assault.
Tina Meier knows first-hand what the Pott family has been going through the past seven months. Her 13-year-old daughter, Megan Meier, committed suicide in 2006 after the teen was embarrassed by a cruel Internet hoax where a friend's mother pretended to be a boy who liked her.
"I'm sure this girl knew that she didn't have control over those images and what was being said about her," said Meier, who founded the Megan Meier Foundation. "Kids many times feel that the things that they hear are what everybody is going to believe, and that there's no way out."
Just turning off the cellphone or computer is not a solution, she said.
"Social media is the way that teenagers communicate today," Meier said. "It's their whole life, and when you're pushed aside and humiliated in that world, it's truly devastating for them. Kids are conditioned to have their cellphones with them everywhere and even go to bed with them. They set up alerts that ding anytime there's a message. It's a vicious, 24-hour cycle that they can't get away from."
The circumstances of Audrie's death quickly gained national attention in part because of two other high-profile cases. Rehtaeh Parsons, 17, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, was removed from life support on April 7 after a suicide attempt. She was depressed over being allegedly raped and bullied by four boys in November 2011 when she was 15. She reportedly had been tormented at school after a photo allegedly showing her having sex with a boy was circulated among friends' mobile phones and computers.
In March, two Ohio football stars were convicted of raping a drunken 16-year-old girl -- an attack that came to light when digital photos of the naked 16-year-old were distributed digitally.
But David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, said it's wrong to place the blame with technology
Instead, he said: "Kids feel like they can commit these kinds of acts and maybe even get away with them."
Rape among teenagers, he added, has decreased substantially since the 1990s and cellphones even might be part of the reason for that drop. That's why he calls the issue of technology "complicated" when discussing sexual assaults.
"If someone knows their images could be out there because everyone is carrying around smartphones, they will be fearful of committing a crime," Finkelhor said. "The problem with sexual-assault crimes always has been that it can be his word vs. her word. So while an image of what happened can be tremendously humiliating, it also can identify the offenders and lead to convictions."
Aftab has a different view. She believes once technology becomes involved, young people can lose a sense of empathy. She theorizes that whomever took the alleged images might be teens who feel like they're the stars of a reality television show. Teens who viewed and then disseminated the photos become the audience.
"It's not just the plain, old, horrible crime of rape," said Aftab, an Internet privacy and security expert. "The cyberworld has a different reality as far as kids are concerned. It's not real life. For them, it's a show and not a rape of someone their own age. It's almost as if entertainment has taken over their humanity."
The Pott family has been public about the circumstances of Audrie's death in hopes it can prevent further tragedies and lead to an "Audrie's Law" to better address cyberbullying that follows sexual assaults.
Rich isn't sure if changes in the law are the answer, but he's convinced there needs to be changes in societal attitudes.
"We need to reframe the whole act, including the photos, as rape because that's exactly what it is," he said.
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745. Follow him at Twitter.com/markedwinemmons.