How teenagers mourn in the digital age

How teenagers mourn in the digital age

THERE was a time when the rituals of death were clear-cut: The deceased was laid to rest, loved ones mourned, and the hope was that the hurt would heal with the passage of time.

Photographs, occasional letters, memories, and a headstone were the legacy left behind.

Not so in 2014. Death in the digital age has opened up a whole new world where outpourings of grief are more common online than at the graveside, and where the desire to continue to ‘connect’ with the deceased is facilitated by social networking sites such as Facebook, where millions continue to post photographs and messages to the digital profile of the deceased.

Examples of this activity are rampant. Take, for instance, the Facebook page for Cork woman Tina Greaney who died in 2007, aged 26, of a cocaine overdose. Family and friends regularly post messages to their beloved — to wish her goodnight or good morning, sometimes sending their love, and, poignantly, sending annual happy birthday or Happy Christmas wishes.

Despite the passage of time, Tina’s nearest and dearest choose to continue to interact with Tina’s digital self.

But what is behind this drive to mourn online and how healthy is it, emotionally and psychologically, to grieve in this untraditional way?

Elaine Kasket, a counselling psychologist and lecturer at Regent’s University in London, has been researching this technologically mediated mourning. Having interviewed young people, she believes Facebook provides a legitimate outlet for dealing with grief. In a paper published in law and technology journal Script-ed last year, Ms Kasket gave examples of what Facebook meant to some of those young people dealing with loss:

n“You can think thoughts in your head, and think ‘Oh, I’m hoping he can hear me’, but when you write something in Facebook, it’s a more tangible way to communicate… I can, sitting in my room, just click over that page, look at his face, remember. It’s so easy and accessible, there’s still that piece of him that’s somehow, in a strange way, immortal.” (Ruby)

nAnother young person, called Claire, said: “I would be close to inconsolable [if the profile were deleted]. Having something that may seem so small to some people is everything to me. [His profile] is the one last thread of him that I have. If we lost it, it would be like losing him all over again. There are just certain things that rip the wounds open.”

The young people’s comments illustrate the value they place on continued, albeit one-sided, communication with the dead in dealing with personal grief. Dr Kasket believes this continuing bond — at odds with the traditional Freudian theory that the healthy resolution of grief involves breaking bonds and moving on — can be “normal, adaptive and comforting”.

As she points out, Facebook is essentially a friends-accessible warehouse of personal and interpersonal data from the deceased individual’s life, and it is the “potential vibrancy of this historical record of relationships and dialogues between friends, possibly spanning many years” that is perhaps key to why a Facebook profile makes the deceased so vivid to those left behind. And it is this vividness that appeals to the mourner who is at pains to preserve the memory of a loved one lost.

Dr Kasket does not view this online interaction as problematic from the point of view of wishing to maintain a continuing bond. She says online mourning is not a risk factor for pathological mourning — where the mourner falls into a bereavement-related depression or is delusional in believing that the deceased is still alive or where functionality is impaired. It’s more a natural expression of grief in a digital age.

Where it does become problematic, however, is when a family, for their own reasons, decide to have a profile removed. Dr Kasket questions this action, arguing that because the Facebook profile is “co-constructed” — essentially a product of exchanges between friends — then it’s not within any individual’s remit, bar the deceased, to have it removed. “I personally don’t agree that families should have the ultimate say,” says Dr Kasket. “It’s about a person’s right to determine what they want their digital legacy to be. Giving anyone control over that is like controlling the eulogy at a funeral.”

Equally, removing a profile closes a conduit to connect with a community of mourners, she says, which can be very isolating, particularly for those at a geographical remove.

Not everyone is so unequivocal about the benefits of online grieving. Bereavement therapist Bríd Carroll, chairwoman of the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network, says that while it’s a natural reaction for some teens she sees to go online in the immediate aftermath of tragedy, it’s often more a short-term thing, where they take comfort from messages of support.

“I think you have to look at it with caution too,” said Ms Carroll. “You will always have someone throwing up derogatory comments. People feel they can be anonymous on one level and on another level, they post their most intimate thoughts. My concern is that there is no emotional regulation. You could actually create a grief monster.”

Ms Carroll says it’s about “finding a safe space to tell what the loss means to you” and that there were “a lot of benefits to the hands-on approach”.

“We’d see as so, so important, empowering parents to help their kids deal with loss,” she says. “We would look at strengthening the natural support networks, such as family and schools. What you don’t want is a script of silence, the ‘we don’t talk about this’ approach where people suffer in silence for years.”

So what does she think of youngsters continuing to post online to the profile of a deceased loved one?

“If it’s going on over a long period, you’d be asking if there’s a grief there that has not been tangibly processed,” she says.

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Experts are urging us all to think about what will happen to our ‘digital footprint’ after we die

Many of us turn to the virtual world to mark major life events – graduating from school, scoring a promotion, getting married or having a baby.

But what happens to your “digital legacy” after you die?

Grieving family members and friends would no doubt be aghast to come across a nasty comment about a departed loved one on their Facebook page or see a troll attacking their Twitter account.

So as morbid as it may sound, lawyers and web experts are urging people to include specific instructions in their will about what happens to the digital footprint they leave.

“In an age where digital data has increasing economic and sentimental value, it is sensible to leave clear instructions in your will about what should happen to, for example, social media content after death,” said Robert Rhoda, a dispute resolution lawyer with law firm Smyth & Co in association with RPC.

Our digital afterlife is not something most people think of and tech companies are still grappling with policies to adequately deal with the issue.

It’s a relatively new area of the law, Rhoda said, adding that people should consider leaving a “digital legacy” to avoid difficulties for those left behind to deal with the issue.

“Administering digital assets and social media content is a novel legal issue,” he said.

“Leaving a ‘digital legacy’ enables your personal representatives to liaise with service providers in line with your wishes. This is preferable to leaving passwords with relatives, which can cause them, often unwittingly, to breach laws related to the misuse of computers and data privacy.”

In Britain, the Law Society of England and Wales has started advising people to leave instructions on what should happen to their social media and other online accounts when they die in order to make it easier for family members to piece together their digital estate.

But Rhoda warned that the virtual world was not afforded the legal status of tangible assets.

“Social media accounts don’t have the same legal status as fixed assets, which form part of an estate, and it is not always clear who ‘owns’ them or, rather, who has the right to access them, once the user has died,” Rhoda said.

In recent years, several cases have emerged to test the law.

In 2005, the mother of a US soldier who died in Iraq went through a long legal battle with Yahoo to gain access to his email account.

In 2011, the family of a 15-year-old boy who committed suicide spent years in and out of court to gain access to his Facebook account, arguing that they wanted to see if there were any hints on his page that would explain his decision to take his own life.

In Australia, a recent study by a government body that specialises in wills and guardianship found that while nine out of 10 people have social media accounts, just one in five have spoken to their loved ones about what should happen to their online profiles when they die.

Lokman Tsui, assistant professor of communications at Chinese University, says there needs to be more awareness of the issue.

“This is something that is really critical but that not a lot of people have given much thought to,” said Tsui, whose research areas include new media and how policies should deal with emerging technologies.

“Some of our most private thoughts and conversations are in our emails and social networks but very few people have thought about what happens to that stuff when they die. This is a new area and there are no ‘norms’ that have crystallised about it.”

The topic raises a raft of issues involving data privacy, ownership and the security of a dead person’s account.

Tsui, who used to work at Google as head of free expression for the Asia-Pacific region, said the search engine introduced an “inactive account manager” last year. The feature allows the account holder to give other people access to their Google profile after they die.

Facebook, which has 1.3 billion users, offers two options: the account can be deleted permanently upon the family’s request or it can be converted into a memorial profile.

When an account is memorialised, sensitive information such as contact details and status updates are removed. No one can log into the account but friends and family can leave posts on the wall in remembrance.

Jed Brubaker, an academic at the University of California, Irvine who is researching death, identity and social networks, said this Facebook option was a double-edged sword.

“Memorialised profiles can be powerful places where the deceased’s social network can gather and memorialise the life of their friend,” he said.

“But in my research, unexpected encounters with deceased profiles has been the most troubling aspect of post-mortem profiles continuing to exist on Facebook.

“People can stumble across posts made to post-mortem profiles in their ‘newsfeed’, mixed in with other casual social media content. These encounters can be alarming, especially when a person is not expecting to see this kind of content.”

In its policy, Facebook says it tries to prevent memorialised accounts from appearing in ways “that may be upsetting to the person’s friends and family”.

A spokesman for Facebook, which declined to reveal how many profiles have been memorialised, said they “give people a platform to remember and celebrate the life of their loved ones after their passing”.

Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has a similar policy to its mother company.

LinkedIn has an online form that allows a profile of a dead person to be removed and Twitter’s policy says an account can be deactivated by an immediate family member or someone who has been authorised to act on behalf of the estate.

Yahoo, which is popular in Hong Kong, will deactivate an account once staff can verify documents such as a death certificate. Access to the account for third parties is not allowed.

A spokesman for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data said that under the city’s laws, personal data was defined only as information which related to a living person.

“When the records relate to a deceased person and no living individual, they do not contain personal data” and were not subject to data protection laws, he said.

Two years ago, Hong Kong lawyer Ryanne Lai Hiu-yeung co-founded an internet start-up called Perpetu to tackle the issue.

Services offered include sending farewell messages on Twitter when you die, the deletion of your emails or their transfer to an authorised person, and deletion of your Facebook account.

The business is still operating but Lai says she is no longer actively promoting it. About 2,000 people signed up and about half were from Hong Kong.

“Most of them are in the ‘internet generation’ so I won’t say they are too young to think about death,” Lai said. “To me, this is more about life than death – it’s about how much you treasure your online presence and content that you create on a day-to-day basis.”

Richard Norridge, of law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, says the intrinsic value of our digital assets is still unexplored territory and someone’s digital legacy can come in many forms.

“It may be music or films held online, virtual currency or perhaps online accounts,” he said.”For many, it still does not form part of their thinking when they prepare their will, perhaps because those engaged in estate planning concentrate on the assets of greatest value.”

Norridge said Facebook’s memorialisation option was a fraught one. “The account is preserved in that it can still be viewed, but no one can log into that account and accounts cannot be modified. Thus if unwelcome comments are posted, they are memorialised, too,” Norridge said.

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Do You Need a Digital Estate Plan?

Will your estate executor have access to your digital estate? Do you know what is involved in a digital estate plan? It’s more than signing your paper will.

Is it enough to leave your email password on a notepad beside your computer?

Sorry, no. You need to learn more digital dos and don’ts.

Digital assets are various online or electronic files with your personal information. They include financial resources and social networks. Digital assets can include personal data with high emotional value. You could also have digital business property with monetary value. Digital assets can be stored electronically, online, in the cloud or on physical devices.

Passwords Can Control Access

Access to your online information or electronic storage is vital. Who should have access to your passwords?

When you make a will, you can appoint a digital executor. You can authorize your executor to hire experts to handle digital assets. You must, however, share passwords and login information to manage such assets.

Executors face a dilemma; in some cases, you may not have ownership of some digital property. Instead, only a non-transferrable access license may exist. Social media user agreements may only permit network access with a personal password. There is nothing to own or sell.

But executors have a duty to collect estate assets. Will they have to hunt for your passwords and usernames?

What about your material in the cloud, on social media or video sites? You can create a digital estate plan and specify your preferences. How is your executor to handle your digital accounts? Should files be closed, maintained or memorialized?

Secure Devices

Estate trustees must be aware of their duties to secure devices with digital information. This includes cell phones, tablets, laptops and computers.

Documents, photos, videos, text messages can be personal or business materials. Executors may not be able to distinguish between these.

Digital assets may have emotional and personal connections for your survivors. This may not translate to monetary value to calculate probate or income tax. However, the loss or expiry of a business domain name or blog can affect online sales and value.

Customer subscription lists and shopping carts can be stored online for businesses. Trademarks, copyrights and creative work can be considered assets and intellectual property. What about the value of an unpublished manuscript or musical composition?

Your online financial accounts may automatically pay utilities, credit card bills, income taxes or loan payments. Your digital estate property can include:

  • blogs
  • domain names
  • online photos and music
  • memorial websites
  • shopping networks
  • loyalty and reward programs

Credit card agreements may impose deadlines for the transfer of rewards or membership points.

Do Not Store Passwords in Wills

You need to store your digital information somewhere other than your will.

Once probated, your will and any password information become public. This could lead to fraud, cybercrime and identity theft.

Many online services store passwords and access codes. These may promise confidentiality. Their guarantees may be short-lived when such businesses fail. Also, digital laws will likely change and courts can order disclosure of such records.

Executors must be aware that online fees can continue to be charged and go undetected. Credit card payments or debt service accounts may have been set up for automatic payments. Without paper statements, executors may be unable to track them.

Digital worlds often have no paper trail to follow. User agreements may prohibit the transfer of passwords and access to anyone other than the registered user.

Can your executor answer your secret questions?

When asked, “What is your favourite bar beverage?” my answer is, “who’s buying?”

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United Kingdom: Leaving A Digital Legacy In Your Will

On 16 April 2014, the Law Society published a press release encouraging testators to leave a list of their online accounts, such as email, banking, investments and social networking sites like Twitter, as part of their arrangements on death. Leaving specific wishes as to what should happen to such digital assets is something that we at Wedlake Bell have promoted for some time, and forms part of the standard information we discuss with clients when they make their Will.

Whilst we encourage clients to list their digital assets, regrettably the law as to how such items pass on death is far from clear. It largely depends on the type of account and service provider as to whether loved ones can access your account after you die. However, Google is one of the service providers that has addressed the issue. It was announced on 11 April 2013 that Google users can specify which of their “trusted contacts” can access their accounts after they die, or alternatively to direct that their accounts be deleted. The wishes will be implemented after a fixed period of inactivity (a minimum period of three months). The wishes are set up through the “settings” option for the relevant account and effectively allow users to create an online Will. The tool applies to Google-run accounts such as Gmail, YouTube and web album Picasa.

Unfortunately, accessing online accounts after death remains a problem with many other service providers, as highlighted in the case of Benjamin Stassen in the United States of America.

The Case of Benjamin Stassen

Benjamin Stassen committed suicide in late 2010 without leaving a note.  As personal representatives of his estate, his parents sought access to his online records for an explanation as to why he committed suicide.  They contacted Google and Facebook asking the companies to release their son’s passwords so that they could access his Gmail and Facebook accounts.  Google complied but for months Facebook refused on the grounds of privacy. It was only after the Stassens threatened further legal action that Facebook allowed them access, and even then it was on the basis that the Stassens did not share the content with third parties. Facebook made clear that they were making a unique exception and their policy remains that a user’s account cannot be accessed by their heirs after death.

Most online service providers bind users by their terms of business.  Personal representatives can close a Facebook account or turn it into a ”memorial page” but under their terms of business, cannot access it.

Benjamin Stassen’s parents obtained a Court Order forcing Google and Facebook to give them access to their son’s records.  Google complied with the Court Order.  However, whilst the Order released Facebook from their duty of client confidentiality, the company is standing by its policy of not allowing personal representatives access to accounts, and so far as we are aware, has continued to deny the Stassens access to their son’s account.

Personal Data

You can see why Facebook did not want to grant Benjamin’s parents access to his personal data.  The law in relation to privacy is a tricky one.  The law in the US is, of course, different to the law in England and Wales.  In England there is no specific law about privacy.  Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 is often cited by celebrities in relation to a breach of privacy, but this only applies to state bodies and not individuals and there is no specific case law about the release of personal data to executors or personal representatives.

Online Assets

The emergence of cloud computing has led to assets being stored on remote servers which may be located in jurisdictions outside the UK. For example, Apple’s i-Cloud which stores music, films, TV and any other downloads made by a user together with e-mails and personal data.  Apple’s policy is to delete all e-mail and data from i-Cloud following the death of a user.  However all content downloaded on its i-Tunes service is subject to a licence which can be revoked on a user’s death. It is not clear how Apple will treat downloaded content following a user’s death but it seems that they would have the right to revoke the user’s licence and delete potentially valuable content.

As digital assets are not tangible property it seems unlikely that a person could bequeath their online music collection to beneficiaries in their Will in the same way as they would could leave, for example, their C.D. collection. This is because the C.D. collection is a physical object which can be left in a Will whereas digital assets are not defined by law in the same way.

Clearly the law in this area has not yet caught up with technology.  However, enterprising companies have exploited the gap in the market for bequeathing digital assets.  For example, Legacy Locker allows people to store online passwords so that executors and personal representatives can access online accounts following their death.

Creating an inheritance for your digital assets and data

The best way to deal with online assets and personal data is to leave specific instructions as part of your Will detailing the online accounts you own and granting your executors access after your death. As a Will becomes a public document after death, it is not wise to include this information in the Will itself; however, a Letter of Wishes, which is a personal document to executors, could be written listing online accounts and how the executors can access those assets, together with specific wishes in relation to each account (e.g. whether it should it be closed, or access given to a named beneficiary). In addition, those who have Google-run accounts should also update their settings for the relevant account to mirror the same wishes in case there are any problems with beneficiaries accessing the accounts with the details given in the Letter of Wishes.

If a user has especially important online assets or data, such as valuable emails or photos, it would also be wise to create a hardcopy of these or save them to a disk or memory stick. Hardcopies can pass under a Will as physical property and will pass to whoever inherits the user’s personal effects (or the user can name a specific person to inherit them).

However notwithstanding these steps, executors are at the mercy of service providers and problems may be encountered if service providers do not recognise the consents given in a Letter of Wishes. There may also be jurisdictional issues at stake. However, for the present (or at least until other service providers follow Google’s example or a test case is taken), setting out express instructions in a Letter if Wishes gives the user the best chance of enabling his loved ones to inherit his personal digital effects.