Is There a Connection Between Social Media and Suicide?

4 years ago

GeekDad had an interesting post about how/if social media contributed to the increased suicide rate. The suicide rate in the United States has gone up by 30% over the last decade, with the largest increase being for those between the ages of 35 - 64. Though no one has pinpointed the reason for the increased rate, the New York Times focuses on baby boomers whose suicide rate increased by 50% to 60%.

Dr. Arias noted that the higher suicide rates might be due to a series of life and financial circumstances that are unique to the baby boomer generation. Men and women in that age group are often coping with the stress of caring for aging parents while still providing financial and emotional support to adult children.

GeekDad's David Israel proposed a different reason for why "more people now die of suicide than in car accidents" and looks at the younger end of that demographic -- thirtysomethings. David Israel muses that it may have to do with the way we process social media, and at times, its isolating effects. If Generation X is most interested in money, fame, and image above all other things, then it makes sense that when money and fame isn't forthcoming, it can lead to depression.

Today, maybe we measure success differently. Yes, we still need to provide, but we have credit cards to help us (harm us?). And when we post to Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, we spend countless minutes a day (hours?) tallying the likes, the RTs, the hearts and the shares. And by George if we don’t feel a little (lot?) disappointed in ourselves when those digital reassurances don’t happen.

Humans have always been trying to keep up with the Joneses, and nowhere is it easier to see what the Joneses have that you don't than online. Number of followers on Twitter? Number of friends on Facebook? Invitation to Disney Moms? Book deal? Comments on a post? Likes on a status? And then all the things that we talk about online that aren't actually contained in cyberspace: the crafts we think up that we put on Pinterest and the gorgeous pictures of a new home and the vacations to exotic locales and the non-tangibles: seeing that someone else thinks they have the best husband in the world or the cutest kids. The most love, the most happiness, the most ease.

Image: WTL Photography via Flickr

Israel may be on to something. There have certainly been enough studies on factors such as why Facebook makes us feel terrible about our own lives or how social media makes us jealous. We know that anything that has the potential to bring us together also has the potential to create isolation when people fall through the cracks.

Plus we've moved from movie stars in the 80s to reality television stars in the 90s to Internet stars in the aughts. I could wrap my mind around the fact that I would never be chosen to be a movie star. I could equally wrap my mind around the fact that while being a reality television star requires little skill, it was also something that one auditioned to be. But Internet star? Anyone with an Internet connection could become an Internet star without leaving the comfort of their own living room. It brought fame to the masses, but what it also did was increase that discontent at Generation X's lack of money, fame, and image when something became out-of-reach that was supposed to be so easy since we were all jumping from a level playing field.

So taking this idea and running with it, the real question is, what are we going to do about it?

If we've determined that social media has the potential to harm us, rather than allowing it to harm us, how are we going to change our usage so it stops harming us?

Here is what I propose:

  • Close the comment box entirely or cap it at 5 comments. The blog writer always has the ability to remove a comment that doesn't add to the discussion, but blog readers will think carefully if they have something to say. Of course, an email address on the blog will still allow people to email the writer directly if the point is to offer comfort. No one will need to look at the number of comments on a blog post again and wonder why this person has X amount while this person has Y.
  • Cap Facebook at 50 friends. Which means that we'll only be connected to people that we know well and want to keep up with on a daily basis. No one will have more than 50 friends, which means there will be no numbers race.
  • No like button. Why do we need it? Let's just assume that our friends like what we post or if they don't, they'll stop reading. I mean, I don't ask people to like the meals I make them or like the statements I make in conversation. Let's just assume the likes.
  • Cap Twitter at 50 followers. Again, this will ensure that your feed is filled with things you actually want to read rather than clogged with people you followed only to build your own followers.
  • A post gets 200 reads and then disappears. Think of it like literary snap chat. You can always take a screen shot or save the post in some way to read later, but posts won't linger on the web indefinitely. There will be no such thing as a post going "viral." No one will be focused on counting up page views.

Fine, even if David Israel is wrong and social media isn't contributing to the suicide rate, we've certainly proven that it contributes to self-esteem issues and feelings of dejection. In the way that Instagram banned thinspo content because it advocates practices that negatively affect physical health, why should we continue to support concepts such as the like button or Klout which negatively affects our mental health or sense of worth?

Or, are all my tongue-in-cheek suggestions comparable to the everyone-gets-a-trophy movement in Little League? Instead of kids learning that maybe they're not the most valuable player, they all receive a trophy at the end of the season just for playing the game. On one hand, fewer kids feel left out. On the other hand, kids are losing a valuable skill of learning how to roll with rejection. Because that is just as important as not feeling left out: learning that not every attempt will lead to success. That you'll be turned down for more things than you're accepted for. That people will stomp on your heart but if you keep putting yourself out there and dating, you may find real love one day. Or you may not. And you have to live with that fact, that not everything you work really hard at will pay off. That you may not get what you want no matter how much you want it.

There are no easy, quick answers in life, and what I constantly notice when it comes to social media is that people want easy, quick answers. They want to build followers quickly. They want big numbers without doing a lot of work to get there. They want great opportunities handed to them, especially if other people are getting those great opportunities.

I don't know if the reason for something as complex as suicide can be pinpointed to a single answer and treated. Mental illness doesn't have a one-size-fits-all cause or treatment.

I do know that human beings like to feel appreciated and scurry away from moments that make our stomachs twist with anxiety. And perhaps the answer here is to appreciate other people more because you know they need it AND to help our next generation sit with those moments that make them feel like crap because sitting there is the way we build up our self-esteem which serves as a Band-aid, covering up emotional wounds.

We don't need to wait for sites to ban content or limit us: we can choose to step away or step closer. We could save our own lives.

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her novel about blogging is Life from Scratch.

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