The Internet & Teen Suicide Link: Intervention & Prevention for Parents

Today I was reading a news article from the American Academy of Pediatrics about the upswing in teen suicide attempts & completions. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for teens between 15 and 19. Wow. And they’ve linked excessive internet use and cyberbullying as some main factors in the uptick of teen suicides. Which naturally brings up questions for me both as a parent and as a clinician. Questions like: How can we prevent this? How can we help our kids to help themselves? How can we make our kids more resilient?

Many of the prevention strategies are similar to those I discussed in Hurting themselves to feel better. Kids should be exposed to mindfulness strategies, be socially connected (with people in real life- not only on the computer), have some downtime in their schedules, know who to turn to in a crisis, and have their computer usage monitored. But I think that there’s more that parent can do for their kids – and for other kids that their kids know.

Obviously, the first thing is to talk to your child about suicide, and if you think that your child is contemplating it – ask them. Open up those lines of communication, let them know that it’s not a taboo subject. Let them know that you won’t over-react, but that you will do what it takes to keep them safe without being judgmental about it. For those of you worrying that discussing suicide will put thoughts in your child’s mind that weren’t already there – this is an old wives’ tale. Talking about suicide won’t bring suicidal thoughts into the mind of someone who doesn’t already have them. It can be a lifesaving conversation.

Similarly, ask kids if they are experiencing online bullying. They may actually be less likely to be honest about this than about having suicidal thoughts. Start this conversation anyway! Let them know that you will be there to help them. Also be aware that kids who are the target of bullies may also engage in bullying behavior online. If this is the case and your child is both a victim and a bully, then you have a lot of talking to do. But more important than talking, listen to your child.  See what the experience has been like for them, then work out a plan to help them through this.

I am a strong advocate of monitoring your child’s technology. Both my kids are intimately familiar with the command, “hand’s up!”  No, it’s not a robbery. It’s a signal that mom is now going to take a look through their computer, phone or tablet. They know that once they hear “hands up” that they  shouldn’t touch anything with screens until mom says OK. I look through things, make sure that I have passwords for all accounts that I can locate, read through their texts, chats and emails, and then turn things back over to the kids. I don’t criticize their grammar (although it makes me twitch!) or their friends. However, I do let them know when conversations have crossed what I view as appropriate boundaries. We talk about why this happened, how to stop it in the future, and role-play a few solutions that they can use next time.

Also, be alert when your child seems upset and is spending more time online than normal. It’s common for a child to want to constantly check to see what has been said about them, and to want to constantly review the comments for changes. This is so traumatizing for them! It you notice a change in affect and an uptick in technology use, take the time to do a technology check ASAP. You might be surprised what you find.

I also stress to my kids the importance of being a strong advocate for others  – not to just sit by and watch someone be tormented. I tell my kids that I expect, in real life and on the computer, that they are leaders. I expect them to intervene if they see something mean. This is a skill that kids need to learn – and it’s super hard to teach. Kids have so much to lose in situations like this, so they need to learn to navigate them with grace. Truthfully, learning to stop someone from targeting another person is a life skill, not just a teenage skill. We’ve all seen grown-ups who aren’t as nice as they should be, and most of us have had to intervene in such a situation.

So how can they intervene? Humor is a great tool. Deflecting a cruel comment with humor is a skill that all kids should be taught. For example, one kid calls another ugly. The kid being called ugly can respond with a smile and frank agreement- “Yep, so ugly that I have to tie a steak around my neck for the dog to play with me. ” Delivered with a laugh in his voice, this will completely defuse the situation and the bully won’t know how to handle it. Bystanders can do the same thing!

Many times just telling the bully to stop is effective. It can be very effective if one of the bystanders speaks up (through online methods or in person) and says that this isn’t acceptable and needs to stop. This is even more effective if others will stand up together against the bully. Teach your kids “if it’s mean, intervene!”

Of course, there comes a time when humor won’t solve things, and neither will simply telling the bully to stop. At this point it becomes time to alert an adult. And this is where technology can be both a blessing and a curse. Here are some tips that you can pass along to your kids:

  • Screen shot to show an adult (things change quickly online).
  • Use the blocking feature.
  • Report to people in charge of the online app/game
  • Don’t respond to the mean comments!

Be available to help them through this. Once they’ve shared this with you, then you need to figure out how to help. Inform other parents, the school or law enforcement, depending on the content/severity of the bullying.

If we can teach our kids to monitor themselves and their friends online, and to report problems that can’t be managed to adults, then we can certainly prevent many incidences of suicide caused by cyberbullying.

Here are some resources for you:

Stop Bullying from the federal government

Cyberbullying Research Center

 

And always, if you’re in need of help, feel free to Contact me.

 

 

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