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When Private Goes Public: The Role Social Networking Plays in Suicide

Social media and suicide research finds that online relationships support mental health and positive relationships

We’re all familiar with tales of social networking sites(SNSs) casting dark shadows over events leading up to a victim’s suicide. Frequently the issues revolve around private encounters, moments and words that spread like wildfire once they’ve been introduced to the digital stage - often without the target’s consent.

With the 21st century ingenue Cyberbullying playing the lead role in each one of those dramas, we rarely hear examples of how social networking promotes a healthy mental state and even prevents suicide in some instances. Although the media continually make the connection, there is no conclusive evidence that cyberbullying causes suicide.

Social media and suicide prevention

We do youth a disservice by perpetually drawing a straight line between the two concepts of online harassment and self-murder. Continuing to make that association falsely communicates the message that there is no alternative escape from cyberbullying other than ending one’s life, which can result in children making that fatal decision.

Adults should remember that youth connect emotionally and define relationships through their digital devices and web platforms. They acutely feel both rejection and connection via digital media.

According to a recent International Center for Media & 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."

It’s crucial that we understand both the positive and negative sides to social media, thereby putting cyberbullying into context and appreciating its place amidst all of the benefits and opportunities that arise from digital connections.

To further this point, a growing body of research from the Australia-based Cooperative Research Centre for Young People, Technology and Wellbeing (YAW-CRC) supports the idea that SNSs have a much more positive affect on relationships and mental well-being than most of us may be aware.

According to the YAW-CRC’s The Benefit of Social Networking Services report:

There is a demonstrated positive relationship between young people’s use of social networking services and self-esteem (...) It is also argued that a sense of community and belonging has the potential to promote young people’s resilience, giving them the ability to successfully adapt to change and stressful events (...) overall, it appears that the social connections developed and fostered through SNS play an important role in promoting young people’s well-being.

Although cyberbullying represents the seamier side of social networking, it’s greatly outweighed by the support systems that youth develop online.

Too often it’s said that friendships in virtual communities don’t carry the same lasting loyalty and profound connectivity that real-world relationships hold. Statements like those 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 planet.

Things to remember

Marginalized children and teens need to hear from trusted sources that their lives are not over if they experience digital persecution from peers. And 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 make all of the difference. For more information, please visit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) What a Difference a Friend Makes website.

By Marsali Hancock, president of iKeepSafe.org