Family suffers loss of daughter due to cyberbullying

PELL CITY, Ala. (WIAT) — On Dec. 7, 2014, Sydney Sellers committed suicide.

In the days and months after her death, Sydney’s mother, Jennifer, began learning things about her daughter she’d never known before. Jennifer said Sydney was living a tortured, second life online, and making dangerous connections, which led to the teen’s death.

To say Sydney Sellers was a typical 14-year-old girl would be an understatement.

Her mother, Jennifer Sellers, said of her daughter, “I couldn’t have asked for a better child.”

Sydney was a cheerleader, and a black belt in Taekwondo. Sellers said her daughter loved to draw and had a talent for it. She got good grades at Pell City High.

Sydney even had a boyfriend.

“If I had a mother’s checklist — check, check, check — of what the perfect boy would be, he was it,” Sellers said.

Sydney was also active in the Catholic Church. In fact, Dec. 7, 2014 was her first day as an altar server.

“She had been through the training and we were very, very proud,” Sellers remembered.

Sellers was so proud of her daughter, she decided to cook Sydney’s favorite meal for dinner that evening: turkey breast and Brussels sprouts.

“She came out probably around 20 minutes before dinner was ready; kind of bounced out of her room, said she was hungry and going to cook pizza rolls,” Sellers said.

Sellers told Sydney to wait just a few more minutes.

“She said, ‘No problem.’ And I told her how much I loved her, and she went back in her room and shut the door,” Sellers said.

That was the last time Sellers would ever speak to her daughter.

“I went to get her up or out of her room, and I found her hanging from her bed,” Sellers said.

At first, Sellers said she thought Sydney was joking, and that she was still alive.

“A lot of nothing, and a whole lot of internal shrieking. My brain just sort of went crazy,” Sellers said.

Within moments, Sydney’s father was performing CPR, while Sellers was on the phone with 911 dispatchers.

Sellers said paramedics pronounced Sydney dead as soon as they walked into her bedroom.

“Both of us sat there and thought, ‘This just can’t be possible,’ but it was,” Sellers said.

Sydney always seemed so happy, Sellers thought. “We wanted to know why almost immediately after it happened, but the only person that could tell us why was no longer with us.”

Sellers said there were no early signs that Sydney was depressed until after her death when she began receiving some disturbing clues.

“Our first surprise was when we were preparing her for burial, and I was told I needed to get a dress for her that covered up her scars,” Sellers said. “I didn’t know she had scars.”

Sydney had been cutting herself.

Sellers was also flooded with messages on Facebook from Sydney’s friends. They told her Sydney had been bullied at school and online.

“Things that used to be a one-day thing when we were kids, they’re not anymore,” Sellers said. “It’s constant battery. Emotional battery on another child. There’s no way to stop it.”

Even though Sydney never told her parents what was going on, she did confide in someone else. Though, Jennifer didn’t know that person existed until about two months after Sydney’s death, when the Pell City Police Department returned her smartphone.

“When I charged it up, plugged it in, turned it on, it automatically opened up to a Kik page, where there was a young — a person who identified himself as a teenage boy, on Kik, explaining to her how to hang herself,” Sellers said. “He walked her through her suicide, step by step. And we’re still looking for him.”

Sellers said Sydney’s death is not her fault, “but I feel partially to blame,” she said. “Not for what happened to her, but for not understanding what was going on in her life.”

After Sydney’s death, Sellers discovered her daughter had been living a double life online.

While Sellers was friends with Sydney on Facebook and monitored her activity on the site, she was unaware of other social networking apps, like Kik, that Sydney was using to talk to strangers.

“She lived her life online,” Sellers said. “I don’t think anybody in our family really understood the capability of evil and bad to seek you out by way of the Internet.”

Sellers said she has communicated with the person who instructed Sydney to hang herself. She said the person is aware that Sydney committed suicide, and that Sellers is her mother.

Sellers said she wants to meet them in person and has provided her phone number, home address and work address; but they will only communicate with her through the Kik app.

“He knows as long as he stays on Kik, we can’t find out who he is,” Sellers said. “I know, for a fact, that he’s talking to other people right now — other kids.”

Sellers said she turned Sydney’s smartphone over to federal investigators, in hopes that they can locate this person.

Meanwhile, Sellers, a family attorney who often advocates for children, wants to share her story with as many families as she can. She calls it her “personal crusade” to keep parents informed about what their children do online, in hopes that no other child suffers the same fate as Sydney.

WIAT 42 News asked Sellers what she thought every parent should know, and her answer was simple: “Your child does not need a smartphone.”

Sellers realizes that confiscating a smartphone will almost inevitably start a fight between parent and child.

“If you can still have an argument with your child, you’re blessed. If they can still slam the door in your face, you’re blessed,” she said. “If they can do any of that, it’s worth the fight.”

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