A suicide goes viral on social media: Suicide Prevention Day

Suicide goes viral on social media

Thursday, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) around the world, organized by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), and co-sponsor World Health Organisation (WHO).  

This year, however, we find ourselves within a different context, trying to emerge from various levels of lockdown and re-establish society and community in stabilising healthy daily activities. In schools, students have either been unable to enjoy the regular routine of attending class or, those with access to devices and data, have found themselves experiencing an increase of several hours a day of online learning. With increased screen times comes increased exposure and influence. A 33-year-old American man committed suicide on social media, and while platforms tried to contain the virality in recent days by blocking access to the video, platform users had repurposed the video in other formats and published into multiple channels, including teen app sensations, TikTok and Instagram. Schools in South Africa have issued warnings of the video to parents over the last few days.

A simple Google search shows the frequency of social media virality around suicide including hashtags that allow users to share their darkest fears and emotional turmoil publicly, with other users commenting. The obsessive usage of these platforms means that teens and pre-teens can be exposed to graphic, violent, or explicit sexual imagery, which disturbs some individuals and causes a response that may vary from anxiety to anger, to sadness, to shame. The most important revelation, according to Dean McCoubrey, the Founder of MySociaLife, the South African online safety and social media program operating in schools, is that “as many as a third of students will not discuss what they have seen or what troubles them online with their parents for fear of punishment or the removal of their device, which gives them access to entertainment, socialising, and games. This is echoed by a 2017 Vodafone survey in 13 countries, meaning that this is not exclusive to South Africa.” 

Suicide shouldn’t be a secret – people understandably think about it, especially if it is in the news or social media, without necessarily having the intent to act upon it. Often there is curiosity which opens up an opportunity to discuss or share helplines if students aren’t ready to talk to their parents for any reason. Suicide is often the result of enduring a longstanding illness, such as depression, and that if provided with the opportunity to get help, many people are able to recover from depression, and no longer have suicidal thoughts or desires. 

MySociaLife teaches thousands of students a year about online safety and social media and assumes “a rare vantage point because we teach eight lessons around digital life skills, and this creates a platform for many students to tell us about the reality of their life online”. This interaction allows the training program to track the latest apps, hoaxes, trends, language, and seeks to bridge the generational and technological divide that has arisen from a generation which received devices or social media access in the same decade as their parents. “This divide has made it difficult for adults. How can they grasp digital identity, privacy, latest apps, mental health, digital footprint, bullying, unless they work inside these moving currents on a daily basis? Parents, teachers, counsellors, and mental health professionals are struggling to understand the landscape and therefore the context of what is happening in teenager’s lives, or what to look out for. To make matters worse, these exposures can be kept largely hidden,” he adds. 

McCoubrey advises parents not to be fooled by the apparent confidence or ‘tech-savvy’ of a teen or pre-teen, given their emotional maturity, and offers six tips:

  1. Parents need to stay abreast of the trends and hoaxes online and either self educate on Google, or ask their school for expert training from educators like MySociaLife
  2. While many teens don’t enjoy probing questions, check-in on what’s interesting online – the highs and lows, or what’s being talked about – and monitor their reactions. But be conscious of your own anxiety rising and how you appear in this conversation.
  3. Provide the safety that their online concerns can be talked about, without taking the device away as punishment if they reveal something that is shocking to you. This may not be their fault that they witnessed something online
  4. Look for changes in their behaviour around sleep, mood, anxiety, their friend group, or school work
  5. Seek professional help as soon as possible, via your health care provider or professional suicide helplines, listed below
  6. Request schools to educate their staff around the latest viral dangers – given the time spent at school – to share the support function and education of students

“MySociaLife now teaches the child psychiatry units in hospitals, and speaks at GP conferences, because this is such a complicated world to understand that even medical practitioners need advice and insight to grasp the nuances within this technological landscape.” “In this instance, curiosity can get the better of kids. And all it takes is to scroll past these graphic visuals and watch something. And then it’s very difficult to get this out of the mind, which can lead to secrecy, shame, embarrassment, and fear. Our kids need non-judgmental support. We do need to accept that most parents have given these devices and data or WiFi connection and schools are using these for learning. Adults had not fully grasped the window into a vast world (of all ages) that it would provide, resulting in positive and negative outcomes.”  At MySociaLife, we have a simple motto, says McCoubrey, “Safer kids can be smarter, and then excel online. But they will need facilitators that are ‘on the pulse’, objective and highly experienced.”

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