PREVENTING TRAGEDY

Social networking, self value and teenage suicide.
The stage when most are prone to mistakes in life is when the childhood is over, and adulthood has not begun yet. Everything suddenly changes for the child: from unusual hormonal makeup of the body to the new range of possibilities and responsibilities. The risk of death during the adolescence is quite high, and suicide is a big part of it.

There are many different reasons for someone to dye by suicide, but I’m going to write about a specific subject – the issue of estimated self worth being affected by a relatively new and accepted type of social environment where today’s children are growing, and how this influences the teenage suicide rates in the economically developed countries.

It may look strange for the older generation who were growing up in the culture where personal worth was measured by the indicators of the real life achievements, rather than by the number of “likes”, “friends” or “followers” on one’s facebook page or in other social networks.  It’s time to look at the social reality of the new generation from the perspective of a young mind being shaped by the rules of the virtual world.

Basically this new type of reality allows creating one’s new virtual self with a set of desired characteristics and plugging this specially designed persona into the network of other virtual selves.

In such a social media environment the number of “friends” and “likes” are serving as the indicators of peer acceptance. “Peer acceptance is the degree to which a child or adolescent is socially accepted by peers. It includes the level of peer popularity and the ease with which a child or adolescent can initiate and maintain satisfactory peer relationships.” (http://www.healthofchildren.com/P/Peer-Acceptance.html)

Peer acceptance plays a tremendous role in the life of teenagers regarding the building and maintaining the satisfactory level of self-esteem. While it may be beneficial for the socially awkward people – to have a special virtual environment where they learn to communicate and connect with others, it can become a hazard for those who suddenly encountered a real life situation that seriously challenged their self-esteem.

There are many potential causes in the life of a teenager that can provoke self-detrimental thoughts questioning the value of self: breaking up with soulmate, being rejected by a parent(s), losing competition or fight, being abandoned by friend(s), changing location and schools, gaining weight, getting acne… and many more triggers that normally wouldn’t affect self-esteem as drastically in the mature adult.

What happens when socially active teenagers face the situation threatening their sense of worth? In the most cases they need proof of their value as it seen by the peers.  And here comes the problem: if a young person is accustomed to measure self-worth by the “likes” in the social media, there is a huge gap that he/she may fall into, because what they actually need is the other type of indicators,  that older generation is more familiar with: the proof of self value rooted in the real world’s actions.

For a teenager it’s the contact and the words of real people that have the biggest potential to change the suicidal mind. Apart for the specialized groups, social media falls short in this area, because it’s not the normal space for average teenager to share deep feelings, fears and anything that can expose vulnerability.

This situation is even worse in the rural countries like New Zealand, especially for the teenage boys, who are accustomed to the culture of being tough man, keeping their emotions inside. “There is a tradition of the hardened-up mate culture within New Zealand,” says Dr Stone. “It puts pressure on men to be of a particular mould, pressure on boys to harden up to become these tough beer-drinking hard men.” (“What’s behind New Zealand’s shocking youth suicide rate?” by Andreas Illmer, BBC News, 15 June 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-40284130)

Therefore, when stricken by a crisis, youth are trapped inside the social media realm, where they’ve learnt to feed their thirst for being valued, respected and loved, but in the case of real life-crisis they can’t get any of it there, because they need proof of self-worth of a different kind.

As shocking as it sounds, but the remedy that suicidal teenagers are seeking is provided at their funeral. If we imagine that the person who committed a suicide, is able to attend his own funeral, what do you think this person would say after seeing numerous people freely expressing their love for him and praising his achievements and personal qualities? I don’t even mention the emotional part and witnessing of grieving. Yes, a response to these testimonies could be: “Why didn’t you tell me even the smallest part of that earlier? It was the lack of this knowledge that was the reason for me ending my seemingly worthless life!”

But lets not spend all our time blaming ourselves for the things we didn’t say and do – it won’t lead us to the better future, but will keep us in the miserable past. Lets use our mistakes as the stepping stones for the new way of living, especially regarding our communication with other fellow human beings. Sometimes even a short expression of appreciation can change or save someone’s life. Those are not the words to be kept in secret until some special occasion, which can happen to be a funeral.

Someone you’ve met today may look like very popular person with a thousand “friends” on facebook, but you may be the only one today who’s got a chance to plant a seed of real self-worth that will stay with this person during his/her darkest nights and eventually will grow into the strong tree of self-realization and fruitful future. If you have an encouraging message for this person, don’t replace it with the facebook “like”, but share it in the form that it naturally came to you: as an honest compliment, word of appreciation, friendly hug or just a smile – later you may discover that you saved someone’s life by being authentic and open.

© Rita Lev 2018