One Lesson From the Disappearance of Gabby Petito

Gabby Petito (left) and Brian Laundrie (right). (Photo from Gabby Petito | Facebook)


Gabby Petito (left) and Brian Laundrie (right). (Photo from Gabby Petito | Facebook)

Social media is not real life, and that has consequences. That may sound obvious, but it’s not as clear to young adults, and studies are showing that dissonance can lead to tragedy – depression, self-harm, suicide – to name a few.


I was thinking about this when watching the national news coverage of the disappearance of 22-year-old Gabby Petito. The happy, smiling pictures and videos we’ve been shown of Petito and the fiancé, Brian Laundrie, drawn from their social media accounts. And how differently things may have been off-camera.


Coincidentally, The Wall Street Journal has been publishing a Facebook investigation. And one of its stories focuses on how its Instagram app is harmful to the mental health of teenage girls. The Journal reports Facebook has known this for some time- based on in-house focus groups, surveys, and diary studies on the topic for three years. But it hasn’t made its research public, or done anything to fix it.


Among the findings that the Journal  reported from internal company documents and slide shows: Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse. 1 in 5 teens say Instagram makes them feel worse about themselves. And among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.


These statistics are even more alarming once you comprehend the number of users involved. More than 40 percent of Instagram’s users are 22 years old and younger. And about 22 million American teens use Instagram every day – compared with five million using Facebook.


The generation that has come of age posting their lives publicly has suffered more mental health problems.


Psychology Professor Jean Twenge, author of iGen, noted that 2012 marked the year when more than half of America had cell phones, which coincided with steep declines in teens hanging out with friends, dating, and sex.


She has written, “rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”


By way of example, she cited a survey funded by The National Institute on Drug Abuse that found eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent.


In 2014, another pair of studies in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology concluded: “Spending more time on Facebook and/or viewing Facebook more frequently, provides people with the opportunity to spontaneously engage in Facebook social comparisons (of any kind), which in turn, is associated with greater depressive symptoms.”


So how might the Gabby Petito case relate? Since her disappearance, the media has been playing endless images from Instagram and Youtube of her months-long van trip around America with her childhood sweetheart and fiance Laundrie. They paint an idyllic picture of two young people in love and having fun on their adventure.


But what they don’t show – and what social media almost never shows – is what was happening when things weren’t going so well.


So far, at least one clue has surfaced. This police bodycam footage from August 12th, when officers in Moab, Utah, responded to reports of disorderly conduct – and encountered Petito and Laundrie as they were “engaged in some sort of altercation,” according to a report released by the Moab City Police Department.


Petito told the officer they’d been fighting over, quote, “personal issues,” and attributed it to her OCD. Laundrie said it all started when he climbed into the van with dirty feet.


The report describes that despite having a physical fight following an argument: “Both the male and female reported they are in love and engaged to be married and desperately didn’t wish to see anyone charged with a crime.”


At the officers’ suggestion, Laundrie and Petito separated for the night, the report said. Petito was described by an officer as quote, “Confused and emotional” as well as “manic.”


One officer wrote: “After evaluating the totality of the circumstances, I do not believe the situation escalated to the level of a domestic assault as much as that of a mental health crisis.”


No charges were filed.


The last communication Petito’s family received from their daughter was on August 30th, but the family attorney says they don’t believe she wrote it. Laundrie allegedly returned, alone, September 1st to the North Port, Florida home he and Petito shared with his parents.


Petito’s family reported Gabby missing September 11th, and that day her van was recovered at Laundrie’s house.


An attorney representing the Laundrie family said in a statement Tuesday the family is “remaining in the background at this juncture and will have no further comment” on the advice of counsel.


At least this much is certain: The picture painted by social media was not the whole story. And the dissonance between the happy videos and pictures and the actual experience of life on the road could not have been healthy for the couple.


If she hadn’t disappeared – with the police video coming to light – hers was just the sort of social media that would have caused others to be envious.


Sadly now, none of us will ever look at her Instagram in the same way.



David Handelman




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Michael Smerconish

Using the perfect blend of analysis and humor, Michael Smerconish delivers engaging, thought-provoking, and balanced dialogue on today’s political arena and the long-term implications of the polarization in politics. In addition to his acclaimed work as nationally syndicated Sirius XM Radio talk show host, newspaper columnist, and New York Times best-selling author, Michael Smerconish hosts CNN’s Smerconish, which airs live on Saturday at 9:00 am ET.


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