by Judith C. Galas, coauthor of The Power to Prevent Suicide
In the 1990s, schools went on high alert to help kids identify suicidal tendencies in themselves and others. They embraced a call to action that continues today through suicide awareness programming. When The Power to Prevent Suicide: A Guide for Teens Helping Teens first came out in 1994, my coauthor Richard Nelson—a university counselor—received many speaking engagements. His audiences included teachers, counselors, and administrators eager to learn how to set up prevention programs or how to console kids whose friends had completed a suicide.
School strategies may have had an impact, because the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a 28 percent drop in teen suicides between 1990 and 2004. The sad news is that the number of suicide attempts and completions has steadily risen since then, as has the number of teens who say they have considered suicide.
While the CDC and other research groups have not definitively pointed to the cause for these increases, cyberbullying has emerged as one of the likely culprits. However, those of us who work with or raise children would be wise to look at the broader impact of networking technologies on kids’ emotional health. Cyberbullying is only part of what can happen when kids have almost unlimited networking access to each other’s private lives.
My experience as a teacher and a dean of students tells me that the ubiquitous nature of Twitter, Facebook, instant messages, texts, electronic photo sharing, and other social networking tools places a heavy emotional burden on kids. They may be receiving hurtful messages, or they may be keeping secret who is hurting someone else. They also know who among their peers is living dangerously. This widespread, intimate knowledge of their peers’ risky choices and behaviors may itself be a burden to our teen population, and may make kids think of suicide, even when no actual cyberbullying occurs. And it presents us with another call to action: to help kids cope with and responsibly share the onslaught of negative information.
Social networks document teens smoking pot, casually hooking up for recreational sex, snorting crushed painkillers, and more. Social networks reveal lives that are flying under parental radar, lives moving closer and closer to serious setbacks because of choices that are unsafe, unhealthy, and illegal—choices that can push teens toward heartbreak, illness and injury, and even death.
Social networks bombard young audiences with these ongoing at-risk behaviors, but this audience doesn’t know what to do with this information. Tell or keep it secret? Pass along the insult or ignore it? Share the binge drinking pics with an adult or pretend to know nothing?
When I spoke at the funeral of one of my former students, I fervently wished that the adults in his life had known sooner that he was snorting crushed OxiContin. His friends knew; social networking had spread the word. His parents knew he had used drugs, but they thought he had grown past their enticements. Had they known he was still using, would he be alive? No one knows, but I know from their own words that the young people who kept his dangerous choices secret feel responsible for his death. His life ended, but theirs have changed as well.
When I was dean of students at a small, private school, the chaplain came to me with troubling news. A much older boy was propositioning one of our seventh-grade girls and his texts were becoming more and more explicit and demanding. The sexually inexperienced girl was both frightened and flattered. She told her girlfriends that she planned to meet him. It wasn’t an adult who discovered and defused this potential threat. It was the girlfriends who decided to share the texts with the chaplain, a woman they trusted. She talked them through their fears that they had betrayed a friend. She helped them accept that their friend’s possible anger at being exposed was better than a friend being sexually exploited. In the process of sharing this information, the girls became better prepared for the next time a tweet or a Facebook post told them a friend might be in danger.
When Richard Nelson and I wrote The Power to Prevent Suicide, we based that book on the research-supported premise that about 80 percent of kids who attempted or completed a suicide had told a friend of their plans. Adults paid attention to the research. They looked for ways to help kids deal with the painful burden of knowing a friend planned to die, but not knowing how best to handle that information. Today, kids have more information about each other than they can comfortably handle, and some of it includes real danger, but they do not have the skills to evaluate this information or to know when and how to share it. I deeply believe that social networking is emotionally squeezing kids in the same ways that information about suicidal thoughts weighed heavy on young hearts.
This generation of teens must learn how to safely and ethically deal with advancing communication technologies, even as they enjoy its many benefits. We all want kids to be responsible and safe cyber-citizens. To get what we want, we must accept that social networking can contain the same dangers as the confided words, “I want to commit suicide, but don’t tell anyone.”
We taught our kids how to share a deadly secret that a friend wants to die, and more kids lived. Now let’s broaden those health class lessons, those youth group programs, those peer helper trainings to include speaking up about the at-risk behaviors being freely broadcast on social networks. We will teach our kids how to be responsible citizens, better friends, and safer teens. This is a call to action.
What have been your positive and negative experiences with teens and social networking? What are you doing to help teens social network responsibly? Share your stories in the comments below.
Judith C. Galas started as a journalist in 1978 and has reported from Montana, New York, London, and Kansas City. For years she worked as a freelance writer and has published more than a dozen books, including several for young adults. She loves teaching her seventh-grade English students at Bishop Seabury Academy, where she is also the dean of students. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with her spouse, Cindy, and their rambunctious sheepdog Rosie.
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