Suicide Now the Second Leading Cause of Death For Teens; Is Social Media to Blame?
There were 1748 deaths by suicide in 2013 among teens aged 15 to 19 years old, and this number might actually be higher, as “some of these deaths may have been recorded as accidental.” With a new study by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) showing that suicide is now the second leading cause of death for adolescents. With social media becoming a daily ritual for most teenagers, the question of whether social media is to blame for the rise of suicide deaths is now being debated more than ever.
“Suicide risk can only be reduced, not eliminated,” writes AAP lead author, Benjamin Shain, MD, PhD, but if social media is to blame for this higher rate, then should teens be pulled out of this social craze?
The Risk Factors that Lead to Teen Suicides
The AAP lists a number of risk factors that lead to suicide attempts. These include “a family history of suicide, a history of physical or sexual abuse, mood disorders, drug and alcohol use, and lesbian, gay, bisexual or questioning sexual orientation or transgender identification. An important additional risk factor for suicide is bullying.”
Most of these factors are not determined by social media, except bullying. Social media has made it easier for us all to bully others. In fact, reports show that 43% of teens have reported being bullied online, compared to 19.6% of those at school. With teen suicide rates being higher, the correlation between these deaths and social media may not be so far off.
Bullying and Social Media
“Bullying has always been a major issue for adolescents, but there is now greater recognition of the connection between bullying and suicide,” Shain explains. Although cyberbullying happens online, it is nevertheless, “as serious” as face-to-face bullying. In fact, results from a survey given to approximately 2000 middle school children, “indicated that victims of cyberbullying were almost 2 times as likely to attempt suicide than those who were not.”
As parents, ensuring that our teens are not being cyberbullied is an essential form of prevention. This is especially important when statistics show that 81% of teens have admitted that it is easier to bully people online and only 1 in 10 admitted to telling an adult when they are being bullied.
Cyberbullying cannot be recognized as the only factor that causes suicide attempts in adolescents, however, “it can increase risk of suicide by amplifying feelings of isolation, instability, and hopelessness for those with preexisting emotional, psychological, or environmental stressors.”
Other Risk Factors Linked to Social Media
Cyberbullying is a major issue in itself but there are other factors that have come with social media that may lead to more teens attempting suicide.
Although suicide pacts (when 2 or more people agree to commit suicide at a specific time) have been around before social media, cybersuicide has risen with the digital age and strangers can now agree to attempt suicide together.
Mediums such as online chat rooms, virtual bulletin boards, forums and mainstream social media have provided “an unmediated avenue to share one’s feelings with other like-minded individuals, which can be easier than talking about such thoughts and feelings in person.”
More than encouraging cybersuicide, “social media platforms such as chat rooms and discussion forums may also pose a risk for vulnerable groups by influencing decisions to die by suicide.” Vulnerable teens who are thinking about suicide could find themselves being pressured in these forums, when other users start to “idolize those who have completed suicide.”
Other risk factors to look out for are pro-suicide videos shared on social media and published on pro-suicide websites because they show teens the different methods they can use to end their life. Teens lured by the idea of suicide can watch these videos and find ways they might not have thought of before, to attempt to end their life.
The media coverage on suicides, as well as suicide stories that would have gone viral on social media, such as the French woman who live-streamed her suicide on Periscope, can also make teens want to attempt suicide. Seeing such stories or suicide notes go viral could lead to copycat suicides by those who would have been thinking about it for a while.
Should Social Media Take the Blame?
The number of risk factors that have come with social media are significant and paired with research, there is no denying that social media can be damaging, especially to those who go in search of content that is harmful. Nonetheless, with the bad comes the good and what has not been mentioned here are the official support groups that help teens who are considering suicide, panic buttons for those going through cyberbullying and the endless forums and websites that are anti-suicide.
Besides these official groups, teens who are considering suicide may also find a support group online made up of complete strangers, whom they can open up to in ways they are not comfortable doing in real life. People who can be of support through this difficult phase in their life to help them out of this dark time.
Parents, talk to your children. Start open and honest conversations about what’s going on in their lives–both in the real world and online.