When I first became a therapist, children and teens taking their own life was an extremely rare occurrence. Now, unfortunately, it seems to be a true risk to all of our children! It’s mind boggling to me that a child can be that distraught that they would go through the process of thought and behavior that it takes to execute a successful suicide. And yet it happens daily! What must they be feeling and thinking that makes it a viable option?
I think there are multiple issues that contribute to such an act. Too many to discuss in one article. But one thing that has definitely changed in recent years that contributes to this issue is social media and cyber bullying. So many of the young people ending their own lives are leaving notes talking about how distraught they had been over the way they’d been treated on social media, that the bullying became too much. I think this cry for help must be heard! It is tragically too late for the youth who have followed through with their suicidal intentions, but if we do something about this, maybe it will save another suffering child.
First, I think we need to look at the age at which children are accessing social media and ask ourselves, is this a developmentally appropriate activity for them to be participating in? And if so, what should the parameters be? Social media allows anyone to say anything with the push of a button. We all know that children are impulsive; they act without thinking. They also lack the cognitive development to fully understand the consequences of their actions. All of this makes it very likely that they will post something on social media that they have not taken the time to think through.
Now let’s add to that the insecurity of this age of adolescence and pre-adolescence. Kids at this age are learning who they are amongst their peers. They haven’t figured it out yet and are “trying on” different ways of being. In some ways, middle school and high school has a “survival of the fittest” feel to it socially. Many children are afraid to be the one that does not fit in or becomes the target of a mean comment or joke, and often times children will say mean things to another in response to that fear. And again, because they can’t think through all of the potential consequences of th0ese actions, if they have access to social media where their words and actions reach many with the click of a button, the damage can be much more substantial than it would have been before this medium existed.
And what about the person who is having trouble fitting in? He or she may get on social media hoping to gain some acceptance from their peers that way. Then that person becomes the latest topic of conversation, being an easy target due to their obvious insecurities. Something negative is said about them. The others join in even if they may feel uneasy about it, because “at least it isn’t me!” In a matter of hours, the number of mean comments and the people laughing at the person have compounded. The targeted person has difficulty escaping it. The theme of the bullying grows very quickly because of the level of connectedness (most students at the school are connected on the site) and the real time format (as soon as it’s written it shows on the site). It becomes like a wild fire in the wind, growing quickly and strengthening with each moment that passes, devouring whatever is in its path.
Anyone in this situation would be feeling pretty terrible. But an adult would hopefully have the life skills to be able to understand that this will eventually pass, that we all have low moments, and then we move on to another stage of life. But we are not talking about an adult, we are talking about a young person, someone who’s primary developmental task is figuring out the answer to that question, “who am I amongst my peers?” And this has just happened, that child is the target of the ridicule from his/ her peers. No doubt feeling terrible. Development comes into play again. He/ she lacks the ability to see the bigger picture, to understand that this pain is temporary, to realize that it will pass. This person becomes distraught, depressed. He/ she feels worthless. They feel like nothing amongst their peers; a loser. It feels overwhelming. In time, this grows to thoughts of suicide.
When we understand the emotional and mental development of teens and pre-teens, I think it becomes obvious that they are not yet ready to navigate the turbulent waters of all that social media has to offer. At minimum, they are not ready to navigate it unsupervised. They can become caught up in this scenario, either as a bully or as a victim very easily. It can happen to anyone, and kids of this age are particularly at risk.
But then, as a parent, we all know that social media is how the kids connect. If they are the “only” kid not allowed to be on snapchat or Instagram or twitter, their social lives will be “over”, or so they would have you believe. It’s such a complicated issue. How do we, as parents, navigate it? How do we decide what to allow and what not to allow? If we do allow it, how much do we monitor them? What about issues like “privacy” (a favorite word for my teen clients to use with their parents in session when discussing this issue)? This is a topic for another article. Because, like this whole issue, and like parenting in general, it does not have an easy answer. But I hope this article got all the parents out there thinking. Because we all need to make mindful decisions when it comes to our youth and social media. And we all need to teach our children about this issue and how not to get caught in the trap of bullying. And we all need to talk with our children about options if they ever feel like they are being bullied. No one has all the answers. None of us can stop this alone, but hopefully together, through lots of conversations and perhaps some parameters and limits, we can do something to deter that next tragedy!