Almost every teen now has an account on at least one social media platform. They use it to reach out to friends, to share experiences, and to tell the world about themselves. However, they also may be making themselves vulnerable.
"Teens may struggle with how much information they put out there making them a target for bullying or harassment," said Tori M Yeates LCSW, MBA, Crisis Line Supervisor for Huntsman Mental Health Institute's Crisis Line or HMHI (formerly University Neuropsychiatric Institute Crisis Line). "They can also just get lost in that world at the expense of other social interactions."
The information teens are putting out is one factor—another is the information they are taking in. Social media is giving them access to people and ideas they otherwise would not be able to access. And not all of that is good. Some is actually designed specifically to harm. "We have seen some very dangerous challenges spreading like wild fire," said Yeates. "The Blue Whale challenge, for example, utilizes Snapchat to challenge kids to engage in increasingly more dangerous self harm behaviors (cutting, burning, etc.) culminating in the individual killing him/herself."
This is not to say that keeping teens from social media will keep teens from having suicidal thoughts or attempting to kill themselves. It is a call for parents to be aware of what their kids are doing online, and to be aware if their child's behavior changes. "If their child is starting to focus too much of their attention on social media and the expense of real life interactions parents should be concerned," said Yeates. "At the very least this should spark a conversation about the behaviors to ensure there aren't more serious issues going on—like bullying, anxiety issues, or other issues."
Parents should also look for behaviors not necessarily related to social media that may signal a problem. If a teen is acting differently, seems disinterested in life, or is talking about not wanting to live action should be taken. It can be a hard conversation to have—but it might save their life. "Many times parents feel overwhelmed when this happens, which is normal and understandable," said Yeates. "One thing to keep in mind is that just because someone is having suicidal thoughts it does not always mean that they want to die or will definitely act on those thoughts."
Parents aren't the only ones who should be on alert. Friends also should be aware when it appears someone is in trouble. They may even have more insight into the situation. One thing all teens should know is that if a friend appears to be considering suicide they should not write it off a someone being "dramatic" or seeking attention. "All suicidal behavior should be taken seriously, period, said Yeates. "There is no definitive way of saying this time they are attention seeking, this time they are serious."
Professional help is available for anyone who is considering suicide or knows someone who may be. The HMHI crisis line is available 24/7 at 801-587-3000, and nationwide the National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached at 800-273-TALK. Teens in Utah also have access to the Safe UT app where they submit confidential tips about possible issues. "Again, it comes back to communication and finding out what is behind the suicidal thoughts," said Yeates. "Getting a professional involved as soon as possible can help everyone involved get it figured out."