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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Blaming Trump is part of the problem

The Atlantic tells us that “Trump is making everyone a little like him.”

I disagree. Notice the headline’s passive voice. President Donald Trump isn’t making us do anything. Instead, we choose to act in certain ways.

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Lemon tree in Phoenix, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

American culture has become coarser in the past half century. Trump didn’t start this trend—not even on Twitter—but he is the logical conclusion of it.

The Atlantic notes former FBI director James Comey’s many insults of Trump in his new book, and Comey’s denials that he’s mocking Trump. Social justice activists are also well known for their abusive online rhetoric. Meanwhile, right-wing ideologues fill online comment sections with all sorts of insults of women and minorities.

This phenomenon is no more left-wing than it is right-wing, though the right has the most globally visible practitioner of it.

Trolling and online insults proliferate because so many people think it’s only wrong when someone else does it. But when I do it, the reasoning goes, I’m speaking out against someone who has hurt others and who needs to be exposed so they can no longer harm others.

Conservatives who say liberalism is a mental disorder are legitimately warning others of liberalism’s threat to civilization as we know it—at least in their own minds. And social justice activists call anyone who isn’t as far left as them a bigot in a justified attempt to fight oppression—or so they say.

But saying that Trump is making us do this evades responsibility for our choices. And it makes the problem worse because it blames the phenomenon on one segment of society, ignoring the fact that really it’s all of us.

No one person is likely to shift the tide, but each individual can play a small part by refusing to play along.

I can choose not to troll online or in person. I can choose not to use insults and instead to focus on why I disagree with someone. And if insulted, I can choose not to retaliate.

Marcus Aurelius wrote that the best revenge is not to be like your enemy. Ever seen a situation where someone remains calm and respectful even when being viciously insulted? In contrast to the exaggerated facial expressions, shrill tone of voice, and over the top statements of the attacker, the other person’s relaxed face and thoughtful response makes it look like a conversation between a child and an adult.

Besides, while factual items can be corrected simply by stating the facts (which may or may not be believed), character judgments are opinion and can’t be refuted in the same way. So redirecting from the personalities to the issue at hand can save us from the rabbit hole of “I know you are but what am I.”