Is there a link between teen suicide, school shootings, & social media?

Mass shootings—especially at schools—have gotten a lot of attention, but there’s another type of violence that kills far more teens. Suicide.

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© Dave DuBay

I was talking with a middle school principal the other day. He said teen suicide is increasing at an alarming rate. The Centers for Disease Control agree. The CDC says teen suicide peaked in the early 1990s and declined thereafter only to steadily increase after 2007.

In 2015 the teen suicide rate was 14.2 per 100,000 for boys and 5.1 per 100,000 for girls. The media focuses particularly on girls because the teen girl suicide rate doubled between 2007 and 2015 compared to a one-third increase for teen boys.

But what if there’s a link between boys who are at risk for suicide and boys who are more likely to commit a mass shooting? Dr. Kelly Posner of Columbia University’s suicide prevention program claims that over 90 percent of mass shooters have had serious suicidal thoughts, and almost a third say suicide is a motive for committing a mass shooting.

Taking the needs of boys and men seriously seems to be a big missing puzzle piece. Dr. Warren Farrell and Dr. John Gray recently published a book about The Boy Crisis. They claim fatherlessness is the leading cause of boys’ problems. In an interview with Bettina Arndt, however, Farrell was clear to point out that suicide and murder occur only in a very small minority of boys—most boys raised by single mothers turn out just fine.

Still, almost two-thirds of teens who commit suicide come from fatherless homes. And Farrell and Gray state the perpetrator grew up without a father or with little father involvement in 26 of 27 American mass shooting where at least 8 people died. Some dispute this figure, however, citing difficulties with identifying and measuring father involvement.

What is clear, though, is that troubled boys are far more likely to kill themselves than they are to kill other people. But we only seem concerned when a boy or a man harms another person, at which point we blame “toxic masculinity” and prescribe redefining masculinity along feminist lines as the solution. Instead we should be asking how best to reach out to troubled boys.

And we should be asking how best to reach out to girls. A doubling in teen girls’ suicide rate is alarming. As we were talking, the principal’s wife added that the “mean girls” phenomenon needs to be addressed more directly. Males are more violent, but females engage in “relational aggression” more frequently than boys. And this increases risk for suicidal ideation.

Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Ditta M. Oliker describes “female aggressive behavior” as:

Excluding, ignoring, teasing, gossiping, secrets, backstabbing, rumor spreading and hostile body language (i.e., eye-rolling and smirking). Most damaging is turning the victim into a social “undesirable”. The behavior and associated anger is hidden, often wrapped in a package seen as somewhat harmless or just a “girl thing”. The covert nature of the aggression leaves the victim with no forum to refute the accusations and, in fact, attempts to defend oneself leads to an escalation of the aggression.

The power of social media to instantly reach hundreds or thousands of people with rumor spreading, shaming, and explicit calls for social exclusion is unprecedented. Social exclusion and public shaming is difficult for anyone, but even more so for adolescents. Dr. Jean Twenge claims that social media makes children more depressed and anxious, dubbing people born after 1995 “iGen”—a cohort with a profoundly different adolescent social experience compared to people born before 1995.

The link between social media and increased teen suicide—not to mention school shootings—has yet to be proved. But it seems undeniable. The principal said the ubiquity of social media is a huge factor in rising teen suicide rates. He said that in years past kids might make fun of a peer in front of a half dozen other kids. But today something posted on social media is seen by hundreds or even thousands of people.

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2016’s most important men’s book

Philip Zimbardo & Nikita Coulombe step outside the box and offer real solutions.

Philip Zimbardo’s 2011 TED Talk “The demise of guys” became a short IMG_0481
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by the same title. And with coauthor Nikita Coulombe it’s now a full length book called Man Interrupted.

Zimbardo is best known for the Stanford prison experiment where he found that social situations have a far greater effect on behavior than most of us think.

In Man Interrupted, Zimbardo & Coulombe look at challenges facing young men today, and how societal changes contribute to this.


Notice that these are symptoms, not causes. 


The book has three parts: symptoms, causes, and solutions. Symptoms include excessive porn and video game use, drug and alcohol abuse, obesity, and opting out of the workforce. Notice that these are symptoms, not causes.

The causes are absent dads, failing schools, environmental changes, technology enabling arousal addiction, and entitlement versus reality.

Let’s dig a little deeper before I get to their solutions. First, they note that human behavior is complex, and simple explanations won’t do – especially pejorative explanations.

How does a young man contend with female dominated schools that are biased against boys, environmental factors that reduce testosterone levels, a culture that recognizes women’s needs while ignoring men’s needs, and a poor job market? And what if he has no father or male mentor to guide him?

We can judge the easy escape of violent video games and readily available pornography (which fails to depict real sexuality). Or we can try to empathize and support him.


Boys need men – especially fathers – as mentors.


“Knowing that they’re needed motivates [men], and they want respect from…other men.” But Zimbardo & Coulombe emphasize that “respect needs to come from doing pro-social things that make life better…not…from out-drinking their buddies or doing some stupid shit.” But to accomplish this boys need men – especially fathers – as mentors.

Instead, society is alienating young men by devaluing fathers, with a political atmosphere that puts women on a pedestal while ignoring or even mocking men’s concerns, and mass media portraying men as buffoons while also encouraging male entitlement.

Referencing Erik Erikson‘s psycho-social development theory, they note that Western society’s distorted ideals often short-circuit the adolescent task of balancing the ideal self with reality. Anger and entitlement rise when we fail “to come to terms with the fact that we are no more special than anyone else.”

For grown men this discrepancy can be heartbreaking. Often a father’s value is more about finances than love. But compared to mothers, twice as many fathers wish they could spend more time with their children.


“Men’s friendships are based on what abilities they bring to the group – remembering that their life is devalued but their skillsets are not.”


How do we address this? Zimbardo & Coulombe advocate going beyond society’s female-centric conversations, which alienate men. We need to treat father’s rights as equal to mother’s rights. We also need to dispel the myth that mothers or other men can serve as replacements for fathers. We need to make fatherhood a priority.

We also need to acknowledge that men as a group have more power than women, but this power comes with tradeoffs. They quote a soldier’s description of the male gender role: “Men’s friendships among peers in competitive atmospheres are based on what abilities they bring to the group; remembering that their life is devalued but their skillsets are not. Showing concern means that you question their ability.”

That almost four out of five suicides are men and boys – an issue which first appears when puberty begins – should be a wakeup call that something’s wrong. But instead there’s societal indifference.


To “harness the power of young men, society is going to have to care about its young men.”


With a nod to men’s writer Warren Farrell, Zimbardo & Coulombe conclude that true power is about control over your life “and having access to fulfilling personal experiences.” But the traditional male role – earning money for others and dying sooner – doesn’t meet that definition. They warn that “if society wants to harness the constructive power of its young men, society is going to have to care about its young men.”

Now to the solutions. They promote political support for a White House Council on Boys and Men, noting that there’s already one for girls and women. Male mentorship programs are important. There’s also a government Office of Women’s Health, but not for men.

They detail extensive school reforms to help boys succeed. They encourage physical activity rather than medication for ADHD (and learning to dance is a great way to do this).

Boys need better sex education, including discussions about peer pressure, consent, boundaries, and the difference between porn and reality.

Men need to teach boys respect for women through actions as well as words. Boys need to know that it’s not okay to call women sluts or hos, but boys also need to learn to avoid the princess (the entitled woman).

Finally, we need to pressure the media to portray men in a more positive and multifaceted light. Zimbardo & Coulombe advocate a “reverse Bechdel Test” with mature and responsible fathers, honest hard-working men, women valuing men before they becomes heroes, and men who resolve conflicts in creative non-violent ways.

The Mask You Live In: A Documentary Review

The Mask You Live In is the second documentary by the Representation ProjectMask “follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity.”

maskReleased in January 2015, it’s still hard to find in many places. But like its sister Miss Representation, Mask eventually will be available on DVD or streaming. The screening in my area was sponsored by a local organization called Maine Boys to Men, whose mission is to “support the happy, healthy, non-violent development of boys and those who help raise them.”

Mask hits the ground running with the gravelly voice of former NFL defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann, who remembers his father teaching him (at five years of age) to be a man – tough and stoic. And what Ehrmann details can only be described as child abuse.

Mask then informs us that gender is a social construct, noting that males and females psychologically are 90% similar. Of course, some may challenge the notion that gender is not biologically innate, but Mask is focusing on gender roles rather than gender identity.

Culture certainly looms large. The interviews with various psychologists, teachers, and ordinary men and women detail American society’s definition of a real man: powerful, dominating, wealthy, and promiscuous. But above all, not weak. Not like a girl.

Educator Tony Porter talks about a boy who said he’d feel destroyed if his coach said he played like a girl. Porter asks, What are we teaching our boys? What are we teaching our girls?

Mask advocates for a less rigid definition of masculinity. One that encourages greater emotional expression and openness for boys and men, thereby discouraging violence and destructive behaviors.

The film observes that a rigid definition of masculinity means boys and men constantly have to prove their manhood. But a man can never definitively prove his manhood because every new challenge threatens a loss of this identity.

This can lead to extreme behaviors, or what the film calls hypermasculinity. Most notable is men’s violence, which Mask illustrates with statistics, and clips from popular action movies and violent video games.

The film’s biggest impact, however, is the everyday boys and young men who tell their stories and talk about how they really feel. Teacher Ashanti Branch runs a support group for teenage boys. The film shows him leading an exercise where boys draw a mask on a piece of paper. On the front they describe how other people see them. On the back they write how they really feel. Then they crumple the papers and throw them at each other. Opening up someone else’s mask, each boy reads what’s on the outside, and what’s on the inside.

The funny, nonchalant, and cocky personas turn into sadness, anger, social isolation, and low self-worth. It’s a painful place to go. But Branch’s Ever Forward Club claims that 100% of the kids in this program (many of whom are from low income families) graduate from high school, and 93% go on to college.

Mask is full of boys and young men who confess that they feel like they could never measure up to the image of a “real man.” They describe their loneliness, isolation, despair, and anger. They describe coping with alcohol, drugs, and risky behavior. But they play the game because not doing so means being socially ostracized, bullied, and rejected.

For some there’s a larger price, however. In a prison support group, inmates describe horrifically abusive childhoods, and joining gangs because they craved a sense of belonging.

Mask describes gender socialization as beginning the moment boys and girls are brought home from the hospital, dressed in blue or pink, and given gender specific toys. Still, little boys are often as emotionally expressive as little girls. When puberty arrives, however, male friendships cease to have the same level of emotional connection because boys try to conform to the emotionally independent requirement of manhood. And so they don’t look gay. But with this emotional isolation we find an enormously higher suicide rate among boys.

The film also profiles several boys and men who grew up without fathers. Luis’s father was deported, and Luis got involved with a gang because he craved male role models. Cody’s dad was in prison for much of his childhood. Steven never had a father figure but later became a single dad. And an awesome dad at that.

Interspersed throughout the clips is a sea of statistics. The film could use a thorough fact checking, however. For example, Mask uncritically presents the unscientific statistic that 35% of men would commit rape if they thought they could get away with it. The claim is based on a non-representative, non-random sample that is too small (only 86 men) to draw any statistically significant conclusion. But this follows along with the film’s claim that the United States is a rape culture (the belief that American culture encourages men to rape women). Though this is debatable, it’s presented without any counterpoint.

I also would have preferred the film to explore the larger systemic issues of fatherlessness. Further, though Mask discusses father wounds, the issue of mother wounds is absent.

Also absent is any discussion of how girls and women’s expectations of men can marginalize less stereotypically masculine men, and encourage male silence. Likewise, men’s violence against women is discussed at length, but women’s violence against boys and men, and women’s not uncommon desire for control over males, is barely mentioned.

The most jarring omission, however, is that male disposability is never acknowledged or even alluded to. Yet, a culture that makes a global issue of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of girls while completely ignoring the group’s mass murder of boys (because they are boys) illustrates how little society values the lives of boys and men relative to girls and women.

Despite these flaws, Mask is a powerfully moving film that had a strong effect on the audience. The discussion after the film showed its impact. A grandmother commented that she thought boys had it easy, but now she’s seeing a different side of things. A young man said he just found out that he has a son on the way, and is joining the Maine Boys to Men new father’s program.

Though the dialogue about problems boys and men face so far has barely reached the mainstream, The Mask You Live In presents an excellent opportunity to spark a national conversation.