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College students ponder their texting habits in the wake of a young man’s suicide

Alexander Urtula died by suicide on the morning of his Boston College graduation.
Alexander Urtula died by suicide on the morning of his Boston College graduation.Suffolk District Attorney’s office

Aaron Halford, a 21-year-old Boston University senior, said he sometimes peeks at his texts without opening them so the sender does not know they’ve been read and won’t expect an immediate reply.

It buys him a brief reprieve from the digital barrage.

“If you don’t respond within 30 minutes or an hour, you hear ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ” he said.

Halford’s classmate at BU, Jenni Todd, said it’s common for students to take screenshots of text messages — from the funny to the mean — to share with other friends or to save as proof or ammunition should conflict arise.

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“Frankly, it’s for insurance,” said Todd, 21.

One Emerson College student said that when the endless influx of alerts from Whatsapp, Facebook, and Instagram became too overwhelming, she deleted the apps.

“You should be able to put limits” on messaging, said Nicole Simon, a 19-year-old who is studying marketing.

The prosecution of a former Boston College student who is accused of driving her boyfriend to suicide with tens of thousands of sometimes abusive messages highlighted the social challenges many young people face in an age of compulsive communication — how to maintain healthy boundaries when the text exchanges rarely stop, intruding on their time at home, at meals, even when they’re asleep.

That can be especially delicate for those in romantic relationships, where constant texting can intensify already heady emotions and increase the pressure to respond quickly, no matter the hour.

“When two people are into each other and in a relationship there is just a natural inclination to want to talk to one another, and texting provides easy access, almost too easy access,” said Halford, a journalism student planning a career in music. “This person wants to talk to me and they have the ability to do so literally every minute of every single day. There is such a lack of privacy. It’s almost like an invasion.”

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Last Monday, prosecutors in Boston said that Inyoung You, 21, had been charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the suicide of her boyfriend, Alexander Urtula, a 22-year-old college student who jumped off a Roxbury parking garage on the day of his graduation.

The volume of texts between You and Urtula in the two months leading up to his suicide in May — prosecutors said it was a staggering 75,000 — was widely met with disbelief by college students around Boston. But the students saw the tragic case as a cautionary tale about the addictive nature of texting and how it can lead to unhealthy attachments.

“My friend has this boyfriend and he has to text her all the time,” said Grace Keogh, a freshman at Suffolk University.

The boyfriend is constantly asking where she is, whom she’s with, and what she is doing, Keogh said.

Keogh questions whether that is too controlling and has tried to keep her own texting habits in check.

“I only text with a purpose,” Keogh said, like making plans to meet up or checking in on friends.

Aidan Capaldi, a first-year student at Northeastern University, said the number of texts that went back and forth between You and Urtula is hard to believe.

“What do you have to talk about for upwards of 1,000 times, I can’t even imagine,” Capaldi said. “That’s just mind-boggling. That’s constant. There’s no other way to send that many text messages in that amount of time.”

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Yet students said they could understand how such inordinate levels of texting could have deepened the dysfunction in Urtula’s and You’s relationship.

“I feel like toxic relationships have the potential to become even more and more toxic with social media texts, and the ability to track each other,” Halford said. “Texting emboldens people to say something they wouldn’t say in person.”

Women and men between 18 and 24 are more likely to experience intimate partner violence than any other age group, according to a 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Technology has only exacerbated the problem, said Lisa Melander, a sociology professor at Kansas State University who studies intimate partner violence among young people and “cyber aggression,” the use of cellphones and computers to harass others.

“They don’t know how to communicate in a healthy way,” said Melander. “People can say, ‘Just turn off your phone.’ Who’s going to turn off their phone in contemporary society? You’re not just going to cut yourself off that way. And the texts keep coming.”

Given the rising suicide rate among young people, juvenile justice advocates and defense attorneys expect more prosecutions like those against You and Michelle Carter, the Plainville teenager who was convicted in 2017 of involuntary manslaughter after a judge found she had goaded her troubled boyfriend into suicide through a months-long campaign of texting.

Carter’s lawyers have appealed her conviction to the Supreme Court after it was upheld by the state’s highest court.

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At the same time, the criminal justice system still prosecutes and punishes young people the same way it does fully grown adults, often without taking into account the science around the adolescent brain, which does not fully develop until age 25, said Josh Dohan, a public defender and director of the Youth Advocacy Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

“Adolescents die in car crashes more, drown more, commit suicide more, get in fights more, experience unwanted pregnancy more. Anything that involves bad judgment, they do it more,” he said. “Adults in the criminal legal system are often making determinations that are really focused on an adult model of culpability and accountability. And being accountable often means we have to send them to prison.

“That may be the right outcome in certain cases, but we need to work on reaching that determination in a less simplistic and more developmentally appropriate way.”

Todd, the BU senior, said it’s “terrifying” to think prosecutors could examine private conversations and take them out of context. But she said the idea that anyone would send abusive texts to someone who is depressed and suicidal is incomprehensible.

“Most people I know who are close with people who are struggling with depression and mental health text to check in on [them],” said Todd, who occasionally writes for the Globe. “I’ve actually seen an incredible amount of community care among people my age.”

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Deanna Pan of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Maria Lovato contributed to this report. Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer. Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com.