Digital media, including social media, became a centerpiece of day to day life at a seemingly exponential rate. Before I graduated high school in 2006, I remember many evenings spent on ICQ (used to chat with friends), making simple websites with shout outs to my friends which included obnoxious lists of inside jokes, and playing The Sims Online. I whiled away the hours without much consequence – at that time it was project to upload a picture to the internet (you had to have a digital camera or a scanner), and in order to sign up for Facebook, you needed to have a college email address. These were simpler times.
Fast forward to now, and we are a world of quasi-cyborgs with our phones in our hands and our head in the Cloud. Technology is immensely helpful to us in innumerable ways – it helps us connect with others, provides us with apps that support our well-being, productivity, work, supports us to make healthier lifestyle choices, and so on. However, if this resource is not used intentionally, it may cause irreversible damage. I’m talking about the approximately 60% increase in suicide rates among individuals ages 10-24 between the year 2007 and 2018.1 While we cannot explicitly say that this increase in suicide among young people is mostly due to the growth in use of social media, there seems to be a pretty obvious connection.
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Take, for instance, the 2017 death of Sadie Riggs from Pennsylvania. Her peers were merciless with their bullying, targeting her in the hallways at school but also through social media, and telling her to kill herself. Her parents, once they discovered what was happening, went to the police and to her school – neither did anything, and they eventually took their daughter’s phone. Unfortunately, it was too late and Sadie completed suicide about a week after her phone was taken.2 Cyberbullying is a type of bullying that extends beyond the boundaries of school; it follows kids home and can infiltrate their life as often as they choose to check their phone, which is at least a couple hours a day for most teens.
What are some of the ways that social media is influencing the increase in suicide among young people? Prosuicidal behavior may be cultivated online in some of the following ways:
- Cyberbullying. This refers to when someone is targeted online and repeatedly tormented and harassed. It’s bullying, but online. A study found that victims of cyberbullying were twice as likely to attempt suicide, and the individuals perpetrating the bullying were 1.5 times as likely to have attempted suicide.3
- Media Contagion Effect. This refers to the increase in a particular activity that occurs when the media covers it, for instance: mass shootings. One study found that, out of 719 people between the ages of 14-24 years old, almost 60% reported being exposed to suicide related content through internet sources.3; There is also a growing trend of posting suicide notes online, which may influence the decisions of vulnerable individuals.3
- Normalizing/disinhibiting suicide or self-harm. Through sharing online, anyone has access to content that may normalize suicide or non-suicidal self harming behavior. Vulnerable individuals who may find extreme chat rooms where others idolize or encourage suicide.3
While there are dangers lurking on the internet, there is also help. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal ideation or self harming behaviors, make sure you reach out for help immediately. Here are some resources:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: http://www.crisistextline.org/
Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide: http://www.sptsusa.org/teens/
The Trevor Project, a resource for LGBTQ individuals: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/
Sarah Tronco, LCSW, provides online counseling in New Jersey and works to develop a strong therapeutic relationship with her clients, which helps to create a secure place where individuals can achieve meaningful change.
Sarah Tronco, LCSW, now also provides Online Counseling in Pennsylvania, contact her to learn more.
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