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.

1B91824F-609F-4DB0-BCAC-0A90339EBAB8
© 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.

Advertisements

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.”

Released 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.

Mass Shootings Are a Gender Issue: But What’s the Right Response?

It seems like mass shootings are becoming more common. I’ve written before about mass shooters being almost all male (though the claim that mass shooters are disproportionately white is false). Today I want to ask if the intersection of American culture and masculinity plays a role. After all, mass shooters are almost all male in other countries too, but most other countries (including Canada) don’t have the frequency of mass shootings that we find in the United States.

American culture has always been militaristic. The original colonists warred with America’s first nations over land, which culminated in the Wild West’s genocidal campaign against Native Americans. And The Atlantic notes that controlling slaves played a huge historical role in the development of America’s gun culture. Further, while opposed by most of the world, Americans over a decade ago were largely supportive of the offensive (“preemptive self-defense”) war in Iraq.

The predictable response to the most recent mass shooting in Oregon by conservatives is a call for more people to arm themselves. America’s honor culture, which accepts violent vigilante justice and distrusts the government to properly administer justice, is alive and well. It’s a common motif in Hollywood films.

Honor culture is particularly about masculinity. Writing for Patheos.com, Fred Clark notes the theory that when a person’s identity is questioned, that person is “likely to react by over-demonstrating qualities associated with that identity.”

Toxic masculinity is a hot topic, but it lacks counterbalance due to the failure to also discuss positive masculinity. That’s why I wrote for insideMAN that masculinity has never been monolithic. Supportive and nonviolent forms of masculinity have always been with us.

Unlike honor culture, a culture of dignity doesn’t blame others for personal failings or take offense at small slights, but it does respect other people’s rights and boundaries while assertively and nonviolently defending one’s own rights and boundaries.

And dignity isn’t just a human trait. In my post about the myth of the lone wolf/alpha male, I noted that zoologists have found that “within the pack he [the male wolf] is most often cooperative.” Nor are wolf packs as male dominated as popular culture believes.

I concluded that the masculine qualities pop culture promotes should be more Captain Picard and less Captain Kirk. Like it or not, pop culture defines our attitudes to a huge extent. I think the stories we tell ourselves need to reflect the distinction between honor culture and dignity culture, and counterbalance the destructiveness of honor culture with the positivity of dignity culture, and the implications for both on masculinity.

But there’s something else that stands out. On the CBS Evening News (15:57) on October 2, Dr. Kelly Posner (who founded Columbia University’s suicide prevention program) claimed that 90% of mass shooters have had serious suicidal thoughts. I haven’t fact checked that statistic, but it’s consistent with the fact that almost four out of five suicides are male.

The claim that the male suicide rate is far higher because men use more fatal methods (such as firearms) avoids the issue. It’s like saying men get more speeding tickets because they drive faster. Why do men drive faster? Why do men use more lethal suicide methods? If masculinity is why, then what is it about masculinity?

Though women attempt suicide more, this cry for help shows they want help rather than death. But men are much less likely to believe they’ll get help or even be listened to. (Men are listened to when talking about impersonal things like sports, but often not with personal and emotional issues.)

Expecting men to be more empathetic toward others is only half the equation. Society must also be more empathetic toward men. Yet, a casual glance at Internet comment sections shows that even women who support egalitarian gender roles are sometimes dismissive of men who express personal concerns, frequently referring to men as babies or suggesting (with zero sum reasoning) that women’s issues are more important so men shouldn’t talk about men’s issues.

But as one woman noted on a Facebook discussion board for the masculinity documentary The Mask You Live In,

I strongly believe society has told men what they expect in the form of “girl power”. In my opinion, and I have a son and a daughter who are tweens, the expression “girl power” has become all encompassing. Instead of teaching both genders of children they BOTH have “power” inside them we exclude young boys and relegate them to sports only as ways for them to express themselves. Take a look at most rural or suburban schools, they have programs after school for girls only that teach them about peer pressure, body confidence, etc beginning at a young age! Such programs do not exist for young boys. I have heard of such programs for young boys in urban schools however, they are not a national program like “Girls on the Run”…My son is almost 12, he has asked me “do I have power?” I didn’t understand what he was talking about, until he explained the signs at school for girl only events…Boys need nurturing too, it’s ok as a nation to emotionally nurture boys outside the home.

The enormous male/female suicide gap first appears in adolescence and widens as boys progress to manhood. If it’s true that 90% of mass shooters have had serious suicidal thoughts, then imagine the effect that programs for boys could have in reducing these tragic events.

#MasculinitySoFragile

Bustle says criticizing toxic masculinity isn’t the same as criticizing men. The controversy Jaime Lutz writes about centers around the Twitter hashtag #MasculinitySoFragile.

She begins her Bustle article with a fair minded statement: “Masculinity isn’t inherently ‘bad’; neither, for that matter, is femininity. But there are certain brands of both that are toxic.” She then “reminds us how important it is to remember that criticizing a concept or a construct isn’t the same as criticizing a specific person or group of people.”

The distinction between constructs and the people who belong to groups associated with those constructs is a fine hair to split. My fellow atheists argue that criticizing religious belief isn’t the same as criticizing those who hold those beliefs. But Christians don’t agree. Though we’ve all heard Christians say that it’s not homophobic to criticize the gay and lesbian political agenda because it’s the issues and not specific people that they’re criticizing (“love the sinner, hate the sin”). And using the same logic, some say that criticizing feminism isn’t the same as criticizing feminists or women in general.

I’m neither feminist nor anti-feminist, and I’m not a men’s rights activist either. I don’t think feminism is anti-male in general, but I don’t think feminism always understands men and masculinity. Just as a man could never understand what it’s like to be a woman, a woman could never understand what it’s like to be a man.

Well, I take that back. Never is a strong word. It’s an absolute. Max Wolf Valerio’s autobiography is called The Testosterone Files: My Hormonal and Social Transformation From Female to Male. A radical lesbian feminist prior to coming out as transgender, he writes that his feminist education did a poor job of preparing him for the realities of the male gender role. He states that he lost feminist friends not because he is transgender, but because he spoke openly about the male experience and contradicted some feminist beliefs in the process.

The overreactions of many men, however, only seem to prove the point of #MasculinitySoFragile. Challenging feminists to a fist fight, telling women to go make a sandwich, claiming that feminists are destroying society, and so on show how easily offended some men are.

And as Lutz notes, many of the points made on #MasculinitySoFragile highlight serious problems men and boys face, but which society isn’t adequately addressing. For example, “that boys are taught to hold in all their emotions and that’s why boys are far more likely to die by suicide.”

However, the sentence structure {noun} so {negative adjective} is a classic taunt. While I wouldn’t leap to the conclusion that #MasculinitySoFragile is intended to demean, there’s an obvious insensitivity.

Further, opposition to something believed to cause great harm often assumes a position of moral superiority aimed at people believed to be unenlightened. In other words, moralistic movements are often patronizing. This is true of evangelical Christianity and New Atheism, as well as feminism and the men’s rights movement.

The distinction that feminists are criticizing toxic masculinity and not men is problematic because most people (right or wrong) unconsciously associate certain characteristics with their core identity. I’m a man, men are masculine, you say masculinity is fragile, therefore you’re saying I’m fragile.

And everyone knows that a weak male is not a real man. A man cannot rely on others to protect him – he must sink or swim on his own. A man is expected to protect others, but if he can’t even protect himself then obviously he is of no use to anyone else. In a social experiment posted on Youtube, bystanders intervened when a male actor appeared to physically assault a woman. But in a separate scenario when she appeared to initiate violence against him, no one intervened. Some laughed.

A hashtag perceived as taunting men about being weak is like taunting women about being slutty. I anticipate disagreement on this point. But I doubt the creators of the hashtag meant to hit that hard.

However, I do think they approached their campaign from a moralistic rather than an empathetic position, and that’s the source of the problem.