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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How Does War Shape Gender Roles?

Feminist sociologist Kathleen Barry writes that, “Male expendability is a corollary to the sexual objectification of girls and women.”

It’s a striking statement, though the concept isn’t new. Warren Farrell originated the idea of male disposability almost a quarter century ago in The Myth of Male Power. In my opinion expendability is a better word because it implies a willingness to throw something away, but that doesn’t mean it actually will be disposed of. Disposability, however, implies that something will be thrown away sooner or later. But maybe I’m splitting semantic hairs.

In Unmaking War, Remaking Men Barry notes that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights assures the right to live, but the Geneva Conventions provides an exception: it’s not murder to kill a soldier in combat. And throughout history men have been cannon fodder just as women have been chattel.

Barry points to war as the reason. Socialization into the male role, which values physical power, dominance, bravery, and stoicism, prepares men for war should one arise. And women have always been the spoils of war.

Recent events put this into focus. The world reacted with moral revulsion in 2014 when Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls. But the world was silent when Boko Haram killed boys by burning them alive.

In traditional societies, the tradeoff for making himself expendable is the almost exclusive male potential to become one of the elite and thus superior to women. But the risk is being cast onto the dung heap of society. A man who cannot protect himself cannot protect women and children, so he’s on his own. Failure is merciless.

Likewise, women’s lives being more valued than men’s comes with the tradeoff that in traditional societies every woman must have a male with authority over her to protect her.

Both warfare and male expendability are found in almost every human culture. Why?

Cathance River Preserve, Topsham, Maine 3/2016
Cathance River Preserve, Topsham, Maine 3/2016

Here’s my pet theory: Even hunter gatherers, once thought to be peaceful noble savages, were quite violent. After all, human beings have a strong ingroup preference. The outgroup is seen as a threat to survival when resources are limited. As the hunter gatherer population increased they infringed on each other’s territories. Violence resulted because there was no established law governing inter-tribal disputes. And men did the fighting because the average man has greater upper body strength compared to the average woman (who was frequently pregnant or nursing small children).

As settled agricultural villages developed and the population increased even more, groups that were successful in battle acquired more territory, eventually resulting in the first empires. The leaders of these warriors – all men – became the first kings and emperors. Patriarchy is the result of physical, not psychological, differences between men and women. That is, misogyny is not the cause of patriarchy, though it can be a result.

It’s also notable that women are more important than men for population growth. A man can impregnate several women in one year, but a woman can only become pregnant once a year. So killing half the men won’t affect the size of the next generation, but killing half the women could result in a population collapse. That’s why Boko Haram kills boys and kidnaps girls.

It’s fascinating that scientists studying the human genome found that male, but not female, genetic diversity decreased enormously about 4,000 to 8,000 years ago when the agricultural revolution happened. In other words, the agricultural revolution left many men without wives while a smaller number of men had many wives.

A popular interpretation is that the male elite dominated the entire female population, but this reflects the view that men are actors and women are acted upon. Another possible interpretation is that women actively selected for or against certain men based on which men were winning or losing the expendability gamble (which doesn’t necessarily mean dying and can include the failure to achieve a social status worthy of any woman). Likely it was a bit of both.

How do males come to terms psychologically with their expendability? Barry notes that the primary way of accepting your expendability is to suppress your humanity. But that makes it difficult to recognize the humanity of others.

The carrot at the end of the stick is becoming a hero, and this proven ability to protect women and children gives a man control over them. But that control has a dark side – men’s violence against women. And this is Barry’s ultimate concern. Addressing male expendability will benefit women.

Though Barry’s focus is almost entirely on war, Warren Farrell gives a much broader description of male disposability. Farrell notes that men are 92% of workplace deaths, more than three-quarters of all suicides are male, and most homeless people are male.

In the 1970s Farrell was on the board of the National Organization for Women in New York. But his falling out with NOW, and subsequent association with the men’s rights movement, stemmed in part from Farrell’s view that NOW devalues the important role of fathers, including NOW’s opposition to shared parenting after divorce (even though it provides for exceptions when there’s abuse). Male disposability doesn’t have to literally mean loss of life.

Feminists have mostly dismissed the notion of male disposability, so it’s refreshing to see Barry putting male expendability forward in a feminist context. Barry’s articulation of how male expendability negatively impacts women shows clearly why dismissing Farrell’s notion of male disposability is a mistake. But while sparking women’s concern by showing how male expendability affects women and girls is a positive step, the issue cannot be fully addressed unless our primary focus is why it matters to men and boys.

There is a different way, and that’s a key focus of Barry’s book. We don’t need war, and we don’t need authoritarian rulers. We can replace expendability with empathy. We are capable of settling our differences through negotiation and compromise rather than violence.

How would the male gender role, and therefore the female gender role, be different if war were unknown?

Can A Moralistic Attitude Lead to Violence?

Sounds like a dumb question. Everyone knows that violent people are immoral. They lack empathy, are selfish, and some are even psychopaths.

But what if the research doesn’t support these assumptions? Harvard professor Steven Pinker, giving a talk for the Economist, says we need less moralizing. He says that most murders happen for moralistic reasons: someone done me wrong, stole my stuff, slept with my wife, cut me off in traffic.

On a larger scale, Hitler saw himself on a moral quest to defend victimized Germans against Jewish perfidy, Communists slaughtered millions of evil bourgeois capitalists, and the Catholic Church’s medieval Inquisition was done in the name of a perfectly good God to defeat the powers of Satan.

The good news, according to Pinker, is that the world today is far less violent than the past. This also sounds counter-intuitive, but in The Better Angels of Our Nature (which he summarized in a Ted Talk) he notes that the scale today is larger because the world’s population is larger. In Roman times there were probably only 50 to 60 million people on the entire planet, but today there are over 7 billion people.

However, per capita violence is far lower today. Pinker says there were about 100 murders per 100,000 people in medieval Europe, but in some European countries today the murder rate is down to 1 per 100,000. And, as a percent of the population, wars today also kill far fewer people.

Further, violence that was not only socially acceptable in the past but even promoted is considered repugnant human rights violations today. Pinker points to the Bible (Numbers 31) where God commands the Israelites to take vengeance on the Midianites, killing all the men, boys, and non-virginal women, sparing only female virgins (presumably to be raped). Were Moses around today he’d be reviled just as we revile the men of ISIS, and he’d be tried as a war criminal.

Writing for Aeon, Tage Rai claims that the primary reason people commit violence is because their moral code demands it. Often it comes down to revenge.

And extreme violence, as with Islamic terrorists, can emerge when people find their way of life threatened – such as modernity, with its ideals of equality, encroaching on Islamic cultures that are based on ancient ideologies.

Giving up one’s vigilante quest to defend personal honor in favor of allowing the state to adjudicate the situation, and accepting the verdict even if it’s not guilty, has done much to reduce violence. Equality also promotes peace because much violence has to do with regulating social relationships, which can mean violent consequences for those who resist subordination.

Social pressure from one’s peers is also huge. Rai describes

a Chicago program known as ‘CureViolence’. The program hinges on getting trusted members of the community to intervene with moral appeals that focus on social-relational consequences, before retaliatory violence can erupt. A study of the program found that it reduced shootings by 16-28% in the areas where it was implemented.

However, he cautions that

It isn’t easy to change a culture of violence. You have to give people the structural, economic, technological and political means to regulate their relationships peacefully. Social groups have to learn to shame and shun anyone who hurts others. But it can be done. It has been done in the past, and it is happening as we speak.