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(EDITOR’S NOTE: David Chartrand is the writing coach for a class of student journalists at Benedictine College. The following editorial piece is a sample of some of the students’ work.)

Social media, and depressed teens: A dangerous formula

by Adam Przybylski
Journalism and Mass Communications
Benedictine College

The Internet is a dangerous place to wander, a maze filled with strangers and hostile people.

David and Normal Walker of Dallas learned just how dangerous after the suicide last Christmas of Sadie, their 15-year-old daughter. The Walkers learned that Sadie had recently, and secretly, created an account on the social media website, Instagram, to connect with other teens about suicide and depression.

Katie’s father told a local television journalist that the Instagram account contained shocking exchanges between teens who were seeking help from one another.

“”It’s just a group of kids — depressed kids — talking to other depressed kids, about depression, all day long,” David Walker said. “And I think [Sadie] just got dragged into it.”

Walker said that computer files indicated that Sadie and the other teens would often chat all day. Some of the chats were with classmates and friends, others were with strangers. On Christmas Day 2014, Sadie and a classmate continued their Instagram discussion in a phone call that lasted 37 minutes. At the end of the call, Katie committed suicide.

Stories such as Sadie’s are becoming far too common as of teenage suicides continue to rise. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among adults and third among the youth worldwide. According to the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of American teens use the Internet daily; 71 percent have accounts on more than one social media site.

We are learning that social media web sites often are the catalyst for teen suicide. Some sites have installed systems to intercept the red flags of alarming communications; the strategy is often insufficient, and too late.

In February 2015, Facebook created a “notification” device permitting users to send private alerts to when they see disturbing posts about major depression and suicidal thought. Joe Sullivan, the company’s chief security officer, said the company has a unique opportunity to teach young people how to help their troubled friends.

“Knowing effective ways to seek input and offer support to your friends and families about difficult topics is an important part of building a safe online community,” said Sullivan, who also co-chairs the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention Public Awareness & Education Task Force.

According to research done by the Georgia Institute Technology, the website Reddit sponsors a forum called “SuicideWatch.” It connects those in need of support with experienced counselors and guidance experts. However, the Institute’s research has discovered that online chatter changes significantly in the days following media coverage of major celebrities. Discussions of hope and support can suddenly become a frenzy of posts filled with anxiety and explicit anger.

The unique risk facing electronically savvy youth is worldwide. An article in Psychiatry Advisor recently blamed the Internet for the alarming rate of suicide among Australian youth, troubled teens who reach out to other troubled teens rather than to medical professionals.

Troubled youth are drawn to social media, the article states because they perceive the Internet as a way “to provide and receive peer-to-peer support in an interactive, anonymous and non-stigmatizing environment.”

LiveScience, an online news magazine, recently noted the impossibility of keeping up with, or policing, the ever-growing number of social media sites. “The medium is ever-changing,” the magazine explained, “ — there will always be new sites and new methods of communication. It’s difficult to pin down the impact of the Internet.”

The message here for young people is clear: Social media and the Internet are a risky way to seek help or to offer it. Not all technology is designed to save lives.

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