Technology, Cyberbullying, and Teen Suicide

Without proper guidance and monitoring, teens and adolescents who use social media tools are frequently the targets of bullying.

Without proper guidance and monitoring, teens and adolescents who use social media tools are frequently the targets of bullying.

Social networking is more popular with teens than with any other age group. It’s worth mentioning again that these Facebook, Twitter, texting, and other tools are used by some teens in decidedly unfriendly ways, and successfully monitoring that activity is not a minor challenge.

This is sadly illustrated in another teen suicide story receiving national attention this week, in which a pair of bullied middle-school girls made a suicide pact and successfully carried it out during a sleepover. The parents knew the girls were depressed and were trying to see to their needs; one was even under medical treatment.

The vehicle used for bullying in this instance was Facebook. Both the girls were 14 years old, which is a year past the age that Facebook recommends for the creation of an account.

To date, the focus of development in technology has been more on connecting people than in defining how people interact once they do connect. The ways — and the speed – in which teens can and do transmit information has grown exponentially faster than guardians, schools, and law enforcement can respond. Couple this with an era in which national discourse has only meager hints of civility, and fertile soil is created for an environment that supports bullying and other kinds of predatory activity.

The association between the social environment and teen depression/suicide is well established, and a new study in Pediatrics further illustrates that not only is an accepting community important to homosexual adolescents (who are at higher risk than the general population), but also to heterosexual adolescents.

Community-level tolerance and support, it seems, makes a difference. And not just for homosexual and bisexual teens — for all teens.

It’s unfortunate that this conclusion is a political hot potato. It may well be that the root cause of many instances of bullying is a simple lack of understanding by children that it’s unacceptable to pick on others who are perceived as different — whether it’s due to appearance, religion, race, sexual orientation, or any other reason. How do health care providers effectively translate that information to assist socially conservative parents and communities?

Other equally tough questions arise. How much should parents monitor adolescent online activity? Even with the plethora of monitoring applications available today, how much monitoring is even possible for teens that have smartphones and Internet access outside of the home? Are there any development in technology that can solve some of these problems instead of plugging new holes that are created as social media advances?