The world’s most popular social networking site last week began to roll out a new feature aimed at preventing suicide and self-harm in its users. Facebook has signed up with Now Matters Now, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Save.org and Forefront: Innovations in Suicide Prevention in order to give users further options if they see a friend post something that worries them.
The new feature, which began rolling out on Wednesday last week, is expected to work on desktop and mobile and allows your friends to report any post that’s indicative of self-harm or suicidal thoughts. From there, you can go on to contact the person yourself, contact another mutual friend to offer more support, or refer the user to a suicide helpline. Facebook will then review the post and serve popups to the friend in trouble when they next login.
If the person in question then decides that they would like to talk to someone about how they’re feeling, they’ll be prompted to call a friend or contact a helpline. There are also options to access self-help such as finding a local suicide prevention worker or accessing video content that utilises true-life stories of people who have found themselves in a similar situation.
Currently, around half of the US can access the new feature and it’s due to be rolled out to the rest of the country over the course of the next few months; it’s unclear if and when the rest of the world will get it.
Does Social Media Cause Suicide?
In recent years we’ve seen a lot of media attention with regard to social media and the effect that it has on mental health, especially when it comes to young people. There are of course lots of questions to be answered with regards to the issue of young people and cyberbullying over social media. The media adores a good story which can draw a terrible correlation between social media and suicide in young adults. However, the research doesn’t always particularly match that of the sensationalist media and it’s thought that in fact, social media can have a positive effect on a young person’s self-esteem.
Youths in particular are tied to their internet-connected devices 24/7 and conduct a lot of their socialising on these devices. This invariably throws up scenarios that are both positive and negative. For a young person being bullied, it’s easy to see that it could create a scenario in which they feel that they can never get away from the harassment, unless they don’t use their devices, which young people appear to be incapable of doing even in the short term.
I speak from experience, I have five children, all of whom are now almost grown, with the youngest being 16. As a parent, I know that the threat that holds most weight when I inevitably lock horns with my teens is to take away their phone and other technology (works like a charm, actually) for a period of time. My youngest is literally glued to her phone all of the time and really appears to not be able to function effectively socially without it. Adults don’t always understand that kids live in a different world now and they conduct their social lives in a far different manner than we did. Many of their relationships are limited to being online – friends that they may see at school but live in a different town they will only really contact with any regularity online and they don’t see anything wrong with this.
And it’s not a problem, it’s just different to how we did it – things change. However, it does mean that sometimes, we’re less aware that a problem exists because it’s being carried out online. Parents should, with this in mind, think about making themselves much more familiar with the sites that their children use so that they can both understand and monitor their child.
Link to Cyberbullying and Social Media
According to an article published in the American Public Health Association Journal, Social Media and Suicide: A Public Health Perspective, “there are several ways that social media can increase risk for prosuicide behaviour.” Studies cited in the article found that middle school children who were subjected to cyberbullying are twice as likely to attempt suicide as those weren’t. The article went on to point out that “although cyberbullying cannot be identified as a sole predictor of suicide in adolescents and young adults, it can increase risk of suicide by amplifying feelings of isolation, instability, and hopelessness for those with pre-existing emotional, psychological, or environmental stressors.”
It was also found that the media has a “contagion effect” on suicidal behaviour which means that people are exposed to more online content surrounding suicide than ever before. The article couldn’t find any real link between suicide and social media usage but it’s clear that cyberbullying does have an impact. The media tend to publish claims based on anecdotal evidence that should really be dismissed due to its sensationalist nature.
Facebook’s Social Responsibility
Social media sites such as Ask.fm have been widely reported in the press due to the amount of users that have committed suicide after being abused on the app. Ask.fm has very little in the way of privacy controls, allows anonymous posts and is widely used across Europe. Its userbase is made up predominantly of young people under the age of 18 years.
So far, nine children have killed themselves after being hounded on the site and this suggests a certain amount of irresponsibility on the part of the Ask.fm. Whilst Facebook has privacy controls and makes a real effort to shut down fake accounts, this isn’t the case with Ask.fm. With this in mind, social media do have a responsibility to ensure that their users don’t come in for any online harassment or bullying, especially if they allow users under the age of 18.
Facebook has now taken this one step further with the new feature, and it’s somewhat encouraging to see that the site takes the issue seriously and is willing to ensure that its users get all of the help that they can. Social media in itself isn’t the cause, although it’s certainly a contributing factor, and parents must get involved to ensure that they know how social sites are used by their kids and how important they are to their social development in the modern world.
Like it or not, kids are building and maintaining relationships online, both positive and negative, and whilst social sites such as Facebook can help, it’s up to education and openness if anything is really going to make a difference. You can ban your kids from social sites, but unless you also ban them from any online activity, it’s very unlikely that you’ll have much of an impact. Kids are very talented at discovering the latest chat app, for example, and continuing their online lives under the radar, so parents need to educate both themselves and their children on all of the dangers that exist and understand that world has changed.
Well done Facebook, I say.
To find out more about cyberbullying, its signs and prevention, visit Cybersmart.