Teen suicide in the age of social media is a complicated issue. On one hand, media exposure to news of suicide can trigger contagion, and online bullying has been blamed for many publicized teen deaths. But while some may point fingers at online activity as a contributor to suicide, social sites and apps are working hard to provide help and prevent harm.
Seventeen percent of high school students in the U.S. have seriously considered suicide. That’s according to a recently released report from the CDC that also says suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people in this country. Stories of teen suicide have become increasingly publicized in recent years, which holds its own dangers. When Marilyn Monroe committed suicide, the suicide rate went up 12% that year, and research has repeatedly shown that if a suicide death receives a large amount of media attention, more suicides are likely to follow. Suicide contagion is nothing new, but it has taken a different shape as information spreads like wildfire on new media spaces like Tumblr, Facebook, and YouTube, further complicating the issue of teen suicide in the age of social media.
Millennials and teens spend large amounts of their time online and on their mobile devices, and for them social spaces can be a much easier place to speak up and express feelings than IRL. Social media can be a place where those in need of help or support post harmful ideations, as it was for transgender teen Leelah Alcorn. Alcorn’s suicide last December went viral, due in large part to the fact that she posted her suicide note on Tumblr. After her death, hundreds of thousands of teens reshared her note and created posts about her, joining in solidarity to support vulnerable LGBT teens, and to help keep Leelah and other victims of gender-related bullying alive. But in the months that followed, two more teens attempted suicide and scheduled their notes to post after their attempts.
Phenomena like these could lead some to point fingers at social media and online activity as causes of teen suicide, and studies continue to show that excessive use of social media correlates with higher rates of depression and anxiety. At the same time, social spaces allow teens to reach out for help, and find community and support in ways that would previously not have been possible. Influential vlogger Tyler Oakley, whose YouTube family has grown to 6,631,724 subscribers, successfully hosted a birthday fundraising campaign that raised $525,679 for The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth. Meanwhile, mobile and social tools are being created to help prevent bullying and try to save lives. New app Stop!t was created by a concerned dad to make it quick, easy, and effective for kids to anonymously report any bullying incident they see on social media. Here are three more projects leveraging technology to help prevent depression, cyberbullying, and suicide:
Facebook’s New Feature
In February, Facebook announced that a new suicide prevention program is soon to be in place for U.S. users. The website is teaming up with several mental health foundations like SAVE, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to create a feature that will help Facebook address concerning behavior by allowing users to mark when posts seem to reveal intentions of self-harm or suicide. Once Facebook is notified, they will then privately contact the person and offer the opportunity to speak with a helpline worker or reach out to a friend, and in drastic cases containing a direct threat of suicide, Facebook urges the user to call local emergency services.
Teens going through depression sometimes have a difficult time reaching out for help. But what if that help was made available to them at the press of a button? Code Blue is an app that acts as panic button, allowing users to send an automatic message when they need immediate support. Teens can enter the contact information of loved ones, and when the Code Blue button is pressed their “support crew” will be contacted. The app removes any barriers to communication that might exist and allows them to quickly notify those they need if feelings of depression or suicide are strong.
Whisper has become a leader in the rise of privacy and anonymity on social media, and now the app’s co-founders are focusing on doing some good. They’ve invested in their non-profit entity Your Voice, and announced that it is now a platform for users to share their struggles with depression. According to Your Voice’s director, 75% of young adults never reach out for help with their mental health issues. Your Voice hopes that encouraging young people to be open about their problems with issues like body image, suicide, and anxiety will let them know that they are not alone and foster an environment of support.