Experts are worried that impressionable teenagers may be influenced by social media or TV shows that ‘romanticise’ the act of suicide.
THE grieving families of two California teenagers who committed suicide last April, just days after watching Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, said the show acted as a trigger for their daughters. Bella Herndon, who was three days shy of 16, and Priscilla Chui, who had battled depression and struggled in school, did not know each other, but had watched the show at around the same time and died four days apart.
In the series, based on Jay Asher’s New York Times bestseller of the same name and produced by pop star Selena Gomez, young Hannah Baker committed suicide, and her reasons for doing so are contained in a series of cassette tapes she mailed to her classmates.
A few months ago, a college student in the Klang Valley allegedly imitated what he saw in the show by jumping off a building to his death. His friends were shocked by the incident as they had seen similar behaviour in other friends, who watched the series.
In 2016, Befrienders Kuala Lumpur reported 7,446 calls related to suicide; 26 per cent of them were students.
Social media and teen shows can be very influential in the lives of young adults today, because it’s about wanting to connect; to be in tune with every single experience that life can offer them, said HELP University counselling psychologist Dr Gerard Louis.
“They don’t want to be left out yet ironically, this generation of young people describe themselves as isolated and excluded. Many studies are beginning to show that there is a connection between heavy social media use and feeling isolated.”
He said what researchers were trying to figure out was whether isolation drove social media use or the heavy use of social media drove isolation, as all the time spent on social media deprived them of real interactions with people.
“Another reason people feel a sense of exclusion is that people watch all these interactions going on in social media and that it seems like everyone is connecting with everyone else but it always seems like other people’s lives are so much better than theirs, such as dream vacations and new homes.
“So the more they see this, the more they feel left out and are never able to get what they want, hence the greater the level of exclusion and possibly depression.”
However, he explained, this did not mean that social media had a causal link to suicide.
“We don’t know yet the mechanism that happens regarding this issue but there are certainly relationships here between high social media use and the heightened sense of exclusion and isolation. This makes people more vulnerable to suicide attempts.”
Louis pointed out that teenagers were more susceptible to ideas of suicide.
“For one, the teenage world can typically be a very confusing place. A very famous psychologist, Stanley Hall, coined the term ‘storm and stress’ to describe a heightened state of turmoil that teenagers experience due to the rapid physiological, psychological, emotional and social changes taking place in their lives.
“They’re not children anymore but not yet adults. Many go through an ‘identity crisis’ during this stage. Their views of right and wrong are constantly changing, often depending on their peers for direction and who influence them most. It’s often also said that the self esteem is most battered during this stage.
“On top of all of this, there’s the stress of having to constantly do well in school and exams. The pressure for many of these young people is great. While they have many virtual friends on Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms, they remain lonely.”
He said suicide happened when people did not feel a strong sense of connection with significant others and experience a deep sense of hopelessness regarding the future.
“In such a psychological state, and without a strong anchor in life, you can understand why ideas of suicide or self-harm appeal to many young people.”
Homemaker Stephanie Leong believes it depends on how the child is brought up.
“Children who are brought up properly are strong and confident in their own beliefs and are not easily swayed by others. They most likely will have a responsible adult who was always there for them when they were growing up, to guide them, to listen to them and to be their pillar of strength. Spending half an hour a day of quality time with them is better than none at all.
“For children who grew up without parental love and guidance, they will likely turn to their peers for attention. If their peers are of a bad influence or vicious in moral character, the child will be susceptible to their impact. The child may grow up insecure and without self-awareness. They will do anything to please their peers, just to be accepted,” said the mother of two.
She said social media and teen shows were big influences in the lives of young adults simply because they spent so much time there.
“If personalities they hero-worship are a bad influence, they’ll most likely mimic their behaviour.”
Leong, who founded the Facebook group “Parents To Tweens & Teens – Malaysia”, explained she started it when her kids were in their teens so parents like herself could discuss the problems their teenage children might face, and to support each other.
“Most parents fear the rebellious teen. For whatever reasons, be it hormonal or influence from friends, a docile and happy child may suddenly turn into an angry and stubborn teen. It’s really hard to get through to them.
“We, as parents, must learn to grow with them. We cannot discipline them like a 2-year-old anymore. We have to evolve with them. We need to be their friend more than a parent. We want to gain their trust so they will confide in us. We need to learn to listen and not judge. We need to let the leash loose.”
From discussions with other parents in the group, it’s clear that if parents are too strict, their kids will stop telling them what they’re up to, she added.
“After all, they’re teens and not children that we can easily control anymore. They can do a lot of things without our knowledge. We need to choose our battles and not fight them on every little issue.”
But how can parents be an authoritative figure and confidant at the same time?
“I believe that for our children to respect us, we must also learn to respect them as individuals. We have to be consistent. For instance, my children know that they can get away with certain things but they also know that I draw the line at being untruthful and being disrespectful.
“A messy room is not nice but it’s not the end of the world. My children are not afraid to tell me that they’ve done something wrong. They know the worst they will get from me is an earful. Also, do not make promises to your children you can’t keep. It’s okay to say you’ll try instead. And it’s also okay to say you're sorry if you’ve wronged them.”
A student counsellor from a private college in Sunway concurred.
“Young adults are very different from when we were teenagers before. There is a fine line between being a friend and foe.
“Unfortunately, most don’t come to me voluntarily for counselling. It’s usually recommended by the lecturer when they notice abnormal behaviour or by parents who can’t get through to them,” she said.
She added that parents who pushed their college kids to extremes by demeaning them or yelling at them in front of their friends would be surprised at the lengths they would go to get attention.
“The best way I’ve seen to deal with a troubled youth is to take them out on one-on-one outings, so they feel special and will more likely open up to you.”
PARENTS, DO YOU MONITOR YOUR CHILD’S SOCIAL MEDIA ACTIVITIES?
“I do not. Not because I don’t care, but because I don’t have the time. I’m at work most of the time. When I get home, my 15-year-old shuts herself in her room and doesn’t come out. She even takes her food in her room. I think it’s a hormonal thing.”
“My daughter is young but I keep a close eye on what she watches. The scary part is when she clicks on one link, so many others pop up. It’s scary because it can be tempting for someone young to be influenced by all this nonsense.”
“I don’t like it when kids are with their gadgets all the time. I’ve made it a point to have them put away their phones during dinner so we can sit together at a table to have a decent meal. We will see how long that stays before they go back to their old ways.”
“I never knew that there was such a show. Now I’m scared. I will be monitoring more closely what my daughter does now. It’s scary what kids are exposed to. They should ban the show.”
YOUTH SPEAK OUT
“I don’t think social media promotes suicide but there are people who kill themselves, especially when a girlfriend or boyfriend leaves them. I think that is bad and promotes the act. But that’s just stupid to follow something like that.”
“I have watched 13 Reasons Why and I liked it. I don’t think it encourages me to commit suicide. It’s not a bad show; it just explains what the person went through.”
“I am a social media freak; my friends and I are always on it, especially late at night. Most of us only sleep at 3am so there is nothing else to do but post Instagram updates or check out what others are doing. It doesn’t make me suicidal.”
“I relate better to my friends, especially in college because we spend so much time together. One of my friends committed suicide recently; it was very traumatising but we had friends to lean on. We are more determined now to talk to each other because we don’t want to see that happen to any one of our buddies.”
THE RIGHT KIND OF FRIENDS MATTERS
IT’S important to have peer-to-peer support, but you have to ensure you get quality trainers who know what they’re doing when training peer support, said HELP University counselling psychologist Dr Gerard Louis.
“You need the right kind of peer supporters who will not do more damage to the people they want to help. You need community and political leaders who are willing to provide the funding and infrastructure where support can happen. You need to have regular campaigns on mental health issues and increase the likelihood that people will seek help from these non-professionals.”
Mother of two Stephanie Leong used to organise parties for her children and observe their friends.
“If there’s someone I’m not fond of, I’ll talk to my kids about it. I’m very careful not to put their friends down because they most probably will not like it. It’s very easy for them to shut us out.
“Instead, I subtly make suggestions about their friend’s certain characteristics that I don’t like or ask them how they feel about it. If they’re mature enough, it will make them think and come to their own conclusions.
“Sometimes we need to play a few mind games with them. Put ideas in their heads and let them believe that it’s their own choice and not what we make them do.”