Families must communicate more and police their children's technology, the mom of a dead Alabama teen tells PEOPLE
A grieving Alabama mother is speaking out to warn other parents about the dangers of online predators, who she says may be at least partially to blame for leading her 14-year-old daughter to kill herself in December.
“These men are still out there” and likely moving on to other vulnerable teens, Jennifer Sellers, 48, of Pell City, Alabama, tells PEOPLE.
She and her husband Ronnie were always open in discussing issues with their late daughter Sydney.
Or so they thought.
Only after the teen hanged herself from her loft bed with a belt – with “no warning signs” and 20 minutes after a seemingly happy conversation over a dinner mom was cooking – did Sellers find out her high-achieving and well-liked high school freshman was living a private life online, chatting deep into the night on the anonymous phone app Kik with men she didn’t know.
And about very grown-up sexual issues like auto-erotic asphyxiation – a tough fact to relate, says the children’s-rights attorney, but one that Sellers says must be shared with honesty and as a warning for parents who may not be monitoring their children’s electronics.
“I can’t accept that she’s gone and nothing will come of it,” Sellers told PEOPLE Wednesday, fighting back tears, as she talked about why she’s sharing her story.
“I just really wish that I had been able to see something because I could have stopped what happened with my daughter.”
Sydney was living a double life, serving as an altar girl at her Catholic church, taking honors classes, earning a black belt in Taekwondo, even enjoying a solid relationship with her boyfriend, all the while enduring bullying at school and coming home to cut herself, a private act of pain.
Only after Sellers talked with classmates and later asked for Sydney’s iPhone from police did a fuller picture emerge of her adolescent confusion.
When Sellers powered the phone up, it opened to the mobile platform site Kik, where she was horrified to read Sydney’s ongoing instant messaging with at least three men that had turned darkly sexual.
“My daughter was not an angel,” Sellers told PEOPLE. “She was smart and beautiful and funny and a normal kid. And she was curious. You do those things – what any other kid would do.
“She played along until they got serious and wanted photographs and actual real information about where she lived,” she says. “She refused when it got to that point.”
She added of trying to make sense of the suicide: “I think that my daughter got into a situation that she couldn’t handle. She was having problems at school that we knew nothing about.
“When she came home from school, she was being assaulted by these men, and she didn’t know what she was dealing with there,” she says.
“I think it got out of control,” she says, “and by the time she realized that she could not handle all of this, she felt it was too late to talk about it. I mean, how would she explain all of that to us? What kid wants to tell their parents what they are doing online, especially if they are dong something that their parents wouldn’t like?”
Sellers, who, with her sister’s help, pretended to be Sydney to these online suitors, says these men are still out there.
She warns parents that they must not only forge deeper personal relationships with their children to understand their struggles, but also be vigilant in policing their online worlds. She knows that’s often difficult.
“What I have to say is uncomfortable and a lot of parents don’t want to hear it,” said Sellers, who welcomes the chance to share her message with schools, parents and other groups.
“I just want to make sure other parents and even other kids who may be dealing with this know they are not alone,” she says. “There are places and people they can talk to.”
She also hopes to expose what she sees as a dangerous cultural shift for families.
“This fabulous new technology has done a lot to curtail communications between parents and children,” she says.
“Everyone seems to be in their own little world with their phone and their computer,” she says.
“Real communication between parents and children doesn’t seem what it used to be,” she says. “These kids are getting their information from very disreputable sources and taking it as gospel and it’s not true.”