You Are Not Cool Enough - How the Internet Affects Youth Depression and Suicide
Introduction - Perils of the Internet
The original utopian vision of the Internet pioneers to connect people and create a common bond between different cultures and personality types did not materialize as planned. Instead, the World Wide Web has become another battlefield that often magnifies differences and inequalities rather than building empathy and understanding.
With social media now the dominant force in young people’s lives, they have become overwhelmingly concerned by how they appear in public. Most experience enormous pressure to look perfectly happy, incredibly attractive and popular, and fabulously successful online. Understandably, this is an impossible standard to maintain, which causes an intense self-doubt, anxiety, and depression.
With more than 92 percent of teens go online daily, of whom almost a quarter report being online “almost constantly,” the Internet has an extraordinary effect on the psychology of our youth, including suicide, as the following case shows.
A Case of Cyberbullying and Teen Suicide
Jennifer: Hello, my name is Jen. I am Suzie’s mom and do my best to care for my sweet 15-year-old girl despite having a difficult time myself.
You see, after my husband announced we stifled his freedom and ambitions, and left one evening, I battled on my own to keep the house and the family going. I worked two, sometimes three jobs at a time, but to return to my daughter after each shift was worth the sweat and tears. She did well at school and was outgoing, at least until just a year and a bit ago. Things changed, slowly at first, so I didn’t notice.
Margaret: Hello, I’m Margaret, Suzie’s teacher.
She had always been a friendly and intelligent student. The child of immigrants and a single-parent household, Suzie worked hard to get good grades and the respect of her classmates. When they were younger, it was enough, and although she was never really in with the popular crowd, she was invited to most parties and social events. That was before the Boston Marathon bombing. After that, fear changed the mood. At school too…
When Students Become Intolerant and Demeaning
Jennifer: Soon after terrorists bombed the Boston marathon, everyone, old and young, started attacking Americans from different descents. My family was no exception, and, for Suzie, it must have been particularly hard, although she hid it pretty well. She became quieter and more withdrawn, not sharing with me as many experiences with her friends on social media as before. Sure it was a passing phase, I didn’t talk to her about it. Better not to meddle, seem nosy, or unnecessarily worried, right? I soon found out how wrong I had been…
Margaret: In the past year, teachers observed more verbal and physical abuse among students than ever before. Some of the girls and boys reported personal attacks on social media, but most remained silent. I talked to them in class, but the dynamics remained divisive, and minority kids were targeted physically and online. In hindsight, Suzie had been unusually quiet, and her grades went down. However, there were so many issues out in the open that we had our hands full. Suzie’s distress went unnoticed, until one day, when it was too late…
Everything Boiled Over
Suzie: Hello, I’m Suzie. I’m very lucky to be alive today.
If it weren't for my mom and teacher, I would not have survived. You see, I used to do well in school and had friends, but they abandoned me, and no one cared. Boys started to post nasty messages and memes about me on Facebook, and my girlfriends didn’t even defend me. Instead, they joined in, and it hurt me a lot.
My mom and teachers were too busy with their own stuff, so I said nothing to anyone. I know now I should have. But then, I just felt alone and abandoned. It hurt a lot. I wanted it so badly to stop. One evening, when my mom was out working, I fetched a piece of rope from our garage and tied a noose the way they explained on the Internet. I fastened the other end to a bar behind the bathroom door and tried to hang myself.
Jennifer: I will never forget that evening. Maybe I had a premonition, perhaps it was just fate or coincidence, but, when I didn’t feel well at work, I asked to be relieved. I have never done that before. I always pushed through, even the time that I had pneumonia.
I went home, and when Suzie didn’t answer my calls, I shouldered open the bathroom door and found her unconscious. She was barely breathing, but still alive. Good doctors at the local hospital saved her life, but it could easily have been different. If only I had taken notice and listened, my little girl didn’t have to go through the suffering in the first place. I know I am being too hard on myself, but she is all that I have!
Teen Depression and Suicide by the Numbers
Any suicide is one too many, but it is even more devastating when a young person takes her or his own life, especially when they are vulnerable to bullying and abuse. According to NIMH estimates, more than 9 percent, or 2.2 million teens aged between 12 and 17 in the U.S. suffered at least one episode of depression in the previous year. Suicide is the third leading cause of death of 15- to 24-year-olds in the U.S., with nearly 8 percent of high school students attempting suicide at least once per year almost twice as many have thought about it.
The suicide rate among young people in the U.S. has seen alarming increases in recent years, which is believed to be linked in part to bullying, Internet use, alienating movements, and ideologies, and other risky behaviors, including violence and criminality.
Cyberbullying is largely an extension of traditional physical bullying behaviors and involves sending demeaning, intimidating, or threatening messages using email, instant messaging, chat rooms, or social networking sites. Over the last research, nearly one-in-four teens reported having been the target of cyberbullying.
Being the victim of cyberbullying causes psychological distress linked to feelings of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, loneliness, and suicidal thoughts. Because they may also be ashamed and alienated and believe that they lack emotional support, many cyberbully victims are reluctant to seek help and discuss their problems. Their resulting social isolation worsens their internal pressure until they find relief through violent or self-injurious behavior.
Cyberbully Victim Poll
Have you been the victim of cyberbullying over the past six months?
An addiction to the Internet is similar to other forms of addiction such as alcohol and drug abuse and problem gambling characterized by urges that are difficult to resist. These can also cause mood problems like depression and anxiety, as well as be sustained by the same distress. Furthermore, spending more time on the Internet lessens the quality of sleep, which increases mood imbalances and psychosomatic symptoms, including headaches, recurrent abdominal pain. As such, Internet addictions appear to have a direct link to depression and suicide ideation, exacerbated by the social isolation that addictive behaviors often produces.
Another social dynamic that relates to Internet-related depression and suicide ideas is the pressure of constant availability on social media and comparison with peers. In a sense, the adolescent invests emotionally in their connections and image online, which is an unrealistic yardstick and set-up to fail. As a vulnerable period in the developmental process, adolescence is a great melting pot of expectations, ideals, and emotions, in a phase where many mental health disorders begin to form.
Everyone, from friends and enemies to those with commercial interests presents a perfect picture of success and attractiveness that are often surface-deep or a blatant lie. As young people are more susceptible than their older counterparts, such presentations are taken seriously while perceived shortcomings are blown up to torment the beholder.
The Fish Bowl Effect
The Internet literally fuses the world in time and space. Information from everywhere is instantly available to everyone. Such unstoppable exposure can be overwhelming if a person is not able or willing to step back. This fish bowl effect magnifies fear and shame to a point where it becomes all-invasive. Impossible models and malicious attention increase internal stress until escape is inevitable, and it is not always the safe and healthy kind.
Us-vs-Them: The Great Divider
The last social dynamic created online goes against the grain of what the Internet was meant to stand for, namely an equalizer of peoples and opportunities. Nowadays, many groups cleverly manipulate digital information and interactions to stir conflict by pitting people against each other and achieve an objective, political, commercial, or otherwise. It is a tactic used by governments, corporations, terrorists, activists, trolls, and others for their own agenda and satisfaction.
As the need to belong is the most fundamental human motivation, most people find it hard not to choose sides in an ever-increasing polarity of opinions and beliefs. Recent events have shown just how far institutions like the mainstream media will go to manipulate a divide between people. Lies and bias are expediently used to gain support in the short-term, while long-term and individual consequences are ignored.
Anyone using the Internet, more so the youth, are vulnerable in this strategy. They are more susceptible and vulnerable, risk-tolerant, and excitement-seeking than older adults. As such, as many young adult lone wolf terrorists have demonstrated, prone to be lured into criminal activities.
As with cyberbully victims, and others most negatively affected by Internet activities, these young people likely feel disenfranchised, angry, and alienated and have a predisposition to mental health conditions including depression and anxiety. They do not need more cajoling on the Internet, they need help, acceptance, and inclusion in society to be able to achieve their potential.
Warning Signs of Internet-Related Distress
Become shy or withdrawn
Changes device use (e.g. suddenly stopping or using it all the time)
Doesn't want to go to school
Is more moody or agitated
Changes eating or sleeping habits (e.g. weight loss, nightmares)
Getting into trouble at school
Show signs of depression
Withdraws from activities once enjoyed
Seems more anxious or stressed
Talks about or threaten suicide
Loses interest in school work and activities
Is more aggressive or acts out
Suddenly changes friends
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