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We’re all familiar with tales of suicide connected to social media. They often involve private moments and words spreading like wildfire once they’ve been introduced to the digital stage -- usually without the victim’s consent.
2010 was full of these examples. First, there was the case of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old who hung herself in January after enduring months of cyberbullying from fellow students. And then, Tyler Clementi: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry,” he wrote on his Facebook status in September, after his college roommate posted a YouTube video of Clementi’s private sexual encounter.
Because cyberbullying plays the lead role in each of these dramas, the positive effects of social media are often overshadowed. But while cyberbullying is serious, it’s crucial to put it into context and also understand the opportunities that arise from digital connections.
The Dangers of Associating Social Networking With Suicide
Nowadays, kids use their digital devices and online platforms to connect emotionally and define their relationships. In fact, in a recent International Center for Media and the Public Affairs (ICMPA) study, “students around the world reported that being tethered to digital technology 24-7 is not just a habit; it is essential to the way they construct and manage their friendships and social lives.”
As a result, kids acutely feel both rejection and connection via digital media. And although cyberbullying represents the seamier side of social networking, it’s greatly outweighed by the support systems that young people develop online. According to The Benefit of Social Networking Services, a report published by The Australia-based Co-operative Research Centre for Young People, the sense of community and belonging developed in social networks “has the potential to promote young people’s resilience, giving them the ability to successfully adapt to change and stressful events.”
Too frequently it’s said that friendships in virtual communities do not carry the same lasting loyalty and profound connectivity that real-world relationships hold. Statements like these diminish the value that young ones place on their online relationships and, in the end, miss the importance of social networking in fostering a sense of self-worth and belonging on this earth.
What’s more, when we perpetually draw a straight line between the concepts of online harassment and self-murder, we do our kids a disservice. Continuing to make that association falsely conveys the message that there is no other escape from cyberbullying than ending one’s life. And this can result in kids making that fatal decision.
Social Media and Your Kids: What You Can Do
Children and teens need to be prepared. They need to hear from trusted sources that their lives are not over if they experience digital persecution from peers. Parents, mentors and teachers should refer to resources (e.g., the Cyberbullying Research Center) to better understand social media’s place in self-esteem development.
If you are concerned for yourself or a child who is being harassed online, intervention programs can make all the difference. Visit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s website, What a Difference a Friend Makes.
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