There have been a number of desperately sad stories in the news in recent months about children and teenagers killing themselves and questions are now being asked about how much blame can be given to social media for its part in the tragedies.
The most recent one concerns a young girl of 14 who took her own life after allegedly being signposted towards self-harm sites by social media sites after she looked up subjects including anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide. The signposting works through algorithms, where you type something into a search engine and, separately, a computer identifies what you are looking at, and recommends other similar stories. The idea is to suggest similar content for advertising purposes and to increase revenue to the – free to user – social media sites. Fine if you’re looking at clothes; disastrous if you’re in a vulnerable state and trying to discover more about anxiety.
It's hard to generalise about people because each individual is extraordinarily unique. However, there are times when a particular group of people may be more inclined to vulnerability than at others and I’d suggest the development from older child to teenager and then to early adulthood in one such time.
It is a time when a young person is evolving and, unless fortunate enough to be supremely confident, is probably more receptive to suggestions from outside influence. Fundamentally, most of us wanted to “fit in” with our peers at that stage of life. Being different means standing out from the crowd and it’s not appealing, particularly when we can’t yet fully stand on our two feet. That’s why that age group has such a presence on Twitter, Instagram – it used to be Facebook but then the “oldies” got in on the act and the young migrated elsewhere – and Pinterest too.
Those who do have a social media identity are comparing and contrasting all the time. Take a look and you’ll see young, bronzed men with six packs and young girls/women with sucked in cheeks and stomachs all seeming to be having the time of their lives. If we’re older, we can glance, admire and chuckle, because we know it’s an illusion and not real. But, when you’re starting out on your own journey of individuality, how will you know that this is just a bunch of people who are very definitely not what they seem? And that they are pretending too.
So, can we blame these ills on social media? Founder and consultant psychiatrist Dr Robin Lawrence at 96 Harley Psychotherapy says: “There used to be a convention that suicide would not be mentioned in the newspapers just: ‘Police are not looking for anyone else in this investigation.’
“It has been well known that various forms of violent death are catching, self-immolation being the most famous example.
“But suicide is also “catching” in a community – like glandular fever really. The community is larger now, and the influence is greater.
“Glamorising suicide is very bad. Many (especially young) people who kill themselves are preoccupied with fantasies of being present at their own funeral and seeing how much they were really loved – how much they have hurt the families they leave behind, etc. An American drama ‘13 Reasons Why’ was a very typical adolescent fantasy about suicide. It encapsulated the mood of the adolescent.”
The Samaritans charity says it is rare for one incident alone to cause a person to kill themselves. Instead, it might be an accumulation of events or thoughts that brings that person to a feeling there is no way out and that it would be better if they ended their life. In that sense, it seems we can’t put all the responsibility on social media.
Personally, I think we in the real world need to connect more with these unhappy young people, reminding them of their “real life” support system of parents, teachers, friends and family. (For those who may be temporarily at odds with such support groups, mental health professionals are available.) We need to talk more and explain more and teach our young about how their own life experiences will help them to develop. It’s not enough to be grateful they’re quiet while on their apps, we have to engage and connect. It’s hard work, but necessary.
There is one thing I think social media could do and it occurred to me while reading and researching about computer signposting. That is, if the social media giants can come up with an algorithm that can point a vulnerable individual in a direction that might have a terrible outcome for themselves and those who love them, they can come up with another one that removes such a risk. A hashtag link to the Samaritans might help.