Carter Reynolds' Twitter spat is a poor advert for social media

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I’m always quick to defend the internet against charges of toxicity. It is home to so much that’s positive, but there’s no doubting it can be a despairing space.

Ellen Pao, former chief executive of Reddit, wrote earlier this week in the Washington Post that “the trolls are winning”.

There’s online misogyny, cyberbullying, hacking, and God knows how many irritating mailshots from political parties. And there’s no better marker of how unfun the internet can be than the ongoing Twitter conversation between Vine star Carter Reynolds and his ex-girlfriend Maggie Lindemann, who split in December 2014.

Reynolds, who is 19, has become a huge celebrity on the video network, with 4.3 million people following his account and its stream of short sketches with other young, male Vine stars. Lindemann herself has 63,700 followers.

Reynolds attracted negative attention back in June when a video filmed on his phone – hacked from his iCloud account, according to him – seemingly showed him pressuring a drunk Lindemann, who was then 16, into sex. The revelation was met with widespread condemnation and some questioned whether he would be found guilty of statutory rape. At the time, Reynolds took to Twitter to defend his actions, even attempting to set up a hashtag in support of himself. He then tweeted an apology, of sorts.

Now, the pair have become embroiled in another Twitter back-and-forth. Lindemann tweeted a picture of herself from a hospital bed. (The cause of her admission is unclear.) This instigated a response from Reynolds, a continuation of harsh comments in the past few days, and a heated exchange. Then tweets of hackneyed soul-searching:

At one point, after attempting for a second time to set up a hashtag in support of himself (dude, seriously), Reynolds’ tweets took a darker turn, and after Lindemann’s admission to hospital Reynolds implied he had had suicidal thoughts.

Alongside rape threats, side-click galleries, poorly drawn weight loss adverts and pop-ups, this exchange has to rate alongside the worst and saddest of the internet. The pair avoid tweeting each other directly, or even using @-replies, instead relying on subtweets, vague statements and passive-aggressive posts online that everybody can view.

Millions of people, therefore, are watching an exchange between two teenagers professing suicidal ideation, against a background of possible underage sexual assault, and then talk of police involvement.

If someone is feeling depressed and suicidal, they are in need of support and help, and the best place for them is probably not in the middle of an argument on a social network. Suicide, as Reynolds and Lindemann both later tweeted, “is not a joke”.

If Reynolds is indeed guilty of sexual assault, he should face prosecution. But apart from both of these things, the fact remains that millions of followers are interested in this banal, oversharing spat, which treats very serious subjects (suicide, assault) with such a lack of gravity.

Reynolds, who is an adult, should know better than to broadcast his entire life and relationship online, if only for his own sake. This is precisely why I am glad that my own teenage years came slightly too early for this type of blanket social media use. Not that this stops much older adults taking this no-holds-barred approach, and not that Reynolds himself is not vulnerable (though he does not come across well).

Above all, it makes one despair. Despair that the 17-year-old Lindemann has such a high profile based mostly on sexualised photographs. Despair that rape culture, a big problem offline, is perpetuated online, as one can see with the leaking of Reynold’s video. Despair that people think it’s OK to share everything and anything about their personal lives, without considering consequences for others or themselves.

It is saddening and worrying that references to suicide and serious mental health problems are batted around on the internet; either because they are used flippantly or because, when serious, individuals should feel they can seek help offline.

I’m not suggesting that the infuriating and concerning exchange between Reynolds and Lindemann comes close to the heinousness of the likes of a subreddit dedicated to “cute female corpses” – still yet to be shut down by new interim Reddit chief executive, Steve Huffman. But it’s a worrying sign of the times.

Both Reynolds and Lindemann have tweeted that they will take a break from social media. That’s probably for the best.

• For more information on mental health in the UK, visit mind.org.uk or stopsuicidepledge.org. The Samaritans helpline is open 24 hours a day: 08457 90 90 90. In the US: suicidepreventionlifeline.org, and Australia: suicidepreventionaust.org

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Hannah Jane Parkinson, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 21st July 2015 18.26 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010