'Curiosity can get the better of kids': Why your teen won't tell you they've seen suicide online

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Request schools to educate their staff around the latest viral dangers.
Request schools to educate their staff around the latest viral dangers.

Today we find ourselves in the unique situation of trying to manage our families across various levels of lockdown while stabilising healthy daily activities.

Making parenting teens a complicated affair. 

In schools, students have either been unable to enjoy the regular routine of attending class or, those with access to devices and data, have found themselves experiencing an increase in screen time, with several hours a day of online learning.

With increased screen times comes increased exposure and influence.

Also read: Mindful or Mind full? Tips for the female leader on using mindfulness during Covid-19

Teens exposed to graphic imagery 

Alarmingly, this includes exposure to suicide online. A simple Google search shows the frequency of social media virality around suicide, these include graphic videos and images, and hashtags that allow users to share their darkest fears and emotional turmoil publicly, with other users commenting. 

The obsessive usage of social media platforms means that teens and pre-teens can be exposed to graphic, violent, or explicit sexual imagery, which disturbs some individuals and causes a response that may vary from anxiety to anger, to sadness, to shame.

The most important revelation, according to Dean McCoubrey, the Founder of MySociaLife, the South African online safety and social media program operating in schools, is that "as many as a third of students will not discuss what they have seen or what troubles them online with their parents, for fear of punishment or the removal of their device, which gives them access to entertainment, socialising, and games."

Suicide shouldn't be a secret

People understandably think about it, especially if it is in the news or social media, without necessarily having the intent to act upon it.

Often there is curiosity which opens up an opportunity to discuss or share helplines if students aren't ready to talk to their parents for any reason.

Suicide is often the result of enduring a longstanding illness, such as depression, and if provided with the opportunity to get help, many people are able to recover from depression, and no longer have suicidal thoughts or desires.

Reality of life online 

McCoubrey says that MySociaLife teaches thousands of students a year about online safety and social media and assumes "a rare vantage point because we teach eight lessons around digital life skills, and this creates a platform for many students to tell us about the reality of their life online".

This interaction allows the training program to track the latest apps, hoaxes, trends, language, and seeks to bridge the generational and technological divide that has arisen from a generation which received devices or social media access in the same decade as their parents.

"This divide has made it difficult for adults. How can they grasp digital identity, privacy, latest apps, mental health, digital footprint, bullying, unless they work inside these moving currents on a daily basis?" McCoubrey says.

"Parents, teachers, counsellors, and mental health professionals are struggling to understand the landscape and therefore the context of what is happening in teenager's lives, or what to look out for."

"To make matters worse, these exposures can be kept largely hidden," he adds.

Six tips for parents 

McCoubrey advises parents not to be fooled by the apparent confidence or 'tech-savvy' of a teen or pre-teen, given their emotional maturity, and offers six tips:

1. Parents need to stay abreast of the trends and hoaxes online and either self educate on Google or ask their school for expert training from educators like MySociaLife While many teens don't enjoy probing questions.

2. Check-in on what's interesting online - the highs and lows, or what's being talked about - and monitor their reactions. But be conscious of your own anxiety rising and how you appear in this conversation.

3. Provide the safety that their online concerns can be talked about, without taking the device away as punishment if they reveal something that is shocking to you.

4. This may not be their fault that they witnessed something online Look for changes in their behaviour around sleep, mood, anxiety, their friend group, or school work.

5. Seek professional help as soon as possible. You can do this via your health care provider or professional suicide helplines, listed below.

6. Request schools to educate their staff around the latest viral dangers - given the time spent at school - to share the support function and education of students.

Also read: Generation Next: How growing up in a digital world may help or hinder our children’s future

Non-judgmental support 

"MySociaLife now teaches the child psychiatry units in hospitals, and attends GP conferences, because this is such a complicated landscape to understand that even medical practitioners need advice and insight to grasp the complexity of this technological landscape," McCoubrey says. 

"In this instance, curiosity can get the better of kids. And all it takes is to scroll past these graphic visuals and watch something. And then it's very difficult to get this out of the mind, which can lead to secrecy, shame, embarrassment, and fear."

Our kids need non-judgmental support, he says.

"We do need to accept that most parents have given these devices and data or WiFi connection and schools are using these for learning."

"Adults had not fully grasped the window into a vast world of all ages that it would provide, resulting in positive and negative outcomes," he explains.

If you need more support, reach out to:

SADAG: Teen Suicide Prevention Booklets

Suicide Crisis Line: 0800 567 567

SADAG Mental Health Line: 011 234 4837

Lifeline Western Cape Telephone Counselling: 021 461 1111

Lifeline Western Cape WhatsApp: 063 709 2620

Submitted to Parent24 by MySociaLife

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