A man types on his computer. (Photo credit: Getty Images/Bill Hinton)
On December 26, 17-year-old Bryce Gowdy from Deerfield Beach, Florida, posted a tweet: “To be or not to be.” A few days later, he committed suicide.
The tell-tale tweet is typical of how social media has dominated the lives of young people. Even their deaths are announced for all who want to see. The platforms are increasingly used to express desperation in the face of depression.
This use of social media highlights the mistaken role that the platforms have assumed. The big problem with social media is that they are not social. They are virtual bulletin boards of messages that often convey images meant to impress others. They can present optimistic versions of life that differ from and even distort reality. However, they are not social institutions that favor community.
The Shallow and Dark Sides of Social Media
Indeed, social media cannot substitute the warmth of real human relationships in which qualities and defects appear. There is no time for deep bonding with people that normally help overcome obstacles and crises. The instant messaging is too shallow to go beyond the posting of a “like.” Thus, social media can be dangerous to those suffering from emotional distress and using the platform to reach out.
Mental health experts are finding that young people are using social media to post their distress or even their final farewell to the world. Depressed individuals hope to be noticed but expect to be ignored. Instead of finding comfort, they find others like them. Together, they inhabit dark and dangerous spaces on social media that encourage self-harm and even serve as a springboard to suicide.
These youths are far from hiding their feelings. Their afflictions are in plain sight. However, no one has time to see and act on them. Desperate youth will post messages with hashtags like #kms (kill myself) or #hatemyself. A whole subculture exists with encrypted words to signal distress. Some are even called secret societies, far from the monitoring of parents. More explicit sites will openly encourage self-cutting or ending one’s life with messages like “you are better off dead.”
Thus, social media are not preventing youth suicide. Despite crying out for help, the desperate messages of disturbed youth are often ignored…or even “liked” or shared.
The Wrong Kind of Communication
However, could it be that social media are also one of the causes of youth suicide?
At first glance, it would appear that social media would not be a cause since, imperfect though they might be, the platforms at least provide for some communication with others.
However, it is the wrong kind of communication, since it tends to isolate individuals. Young people will immerse themselves on their smartphones for hours instead of seeking out live social interaction. Social media can form a vicious circle by both isolating and binding up participants in their web. They limit physical involvement with others, while expanding social validation in the form of superficial “likes,” friends and followings. It is the wrong kind of communication for youth at a time when they need intense affection, direction, and support.
A Spiritual Problem
The problem with social media is that it fails to address a spiritual need based on human nature. All human beings are social by nature. Everyone is destined to live in community by design, not accident.
There is a strong social instinct that is impossible to suppress. All human inclinations presuppose social life. All of the powers and capacities of the soul are directed toward community. Thus, the most important events of life are embedded in social institutions—religion, community, family—that allow individuals to develop their full potential. Individuals are contingent beings; they need others to confront life’s cruel hardships. The individual’s greatest joys come from knowing and loving other individuals.
Institutions like the family are intensely social, with constant contact between its members. Inside such communities, individuals find protection and the means to survive and prosper. They also find fulfillment by their contributions to society and the recognition of their qualities. Communities bind individuals and families together into an order that provides stability and purpose. They connect people to supernatural ends by assisting people in knowing, loving, and serving God.
The more intense the links between individuals, the more their personalities are stable.
Not Real Communities
Social media cannot form proper communities. Its “communities” lack the profundity and warmth that the individual needs and experiences with the full use of the senses. Social media can also distort reality to exclude misfortune and thus discourage the need to bond with others.
The use of social media is highly individualistic, since it tends to exalt the individual. The “communities” it forms consist of collections of scattered individuals who do not have the elements to evaluate the misfortunes of others.
That is why social media are not helping to address the youth suicide issue. Instead, social media make things worse by creating dark anti-communities that can push people over the edge.
The best way to deal with youth suicide is through the family and the natural social institutions that favor strong ties and constant contact. These institutions bring meaning, purpose, and hope to life in times good or bad. They provide support and understanding during tribulation. They address the root causes of suicidal thoughts. They direct individuals to God, who alone is their final end.
John Horvat II is a scholar, researcher, educator, international speaker, and author of the book Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Soceity–Where We’ve Been, How We Go Here, and Where We Need to Go. He lives in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, where he is the vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.