When Private Goes Public: Social Networking and Suicide

“Jumping off the gw bridge sorry,” Tyler Clementi, age 18, posted on his Facebook status on September 22, 2010.

And then he did just that. A desperate act fueled by humiliation, Clementi committed suicide after his Rutgers University roommate secretly recorded a private sexual encounter between him and another male, only to then post it to YouTube.

In the Phoebe Prince case, the 15-year-old hanged herself on January 10, 2010, after enduring months of bullying from fellow students. Prince felt that killing herself was the only escape from teen tormentors who attacked her in the hallways and taunted her through texts and public online spaces, like Facebook.

We’re all familiar with tales of social networking sites (SNSs), along with other new media platforms, casting a dark shadow over events leading up to a victim’s suicide. Frequently the issues revolve around private encounters, moments and words that spread like wildfire once they’ve been introduced to the digital stage – often without the target’s consent.

With the 21st century ingenue Cyberbullying playing the lead role in each one of those dramas, we rarely hear examples of how social networking promotes a healthy mental state and even prevents suicide in some instances.

Although the media continually make the connection, there is no conclusive evidence that online bullying causes suicide.

First, we do youth a disservice by perpetually drawing a straight line between the two concepts of online harassment and self-murder. Continuing to make that association falsely communicates the message that there is no alternative escape from cyberbullying other than ending one’s life, which can result in children making that fatal decision.

Second, adults need to remember that youth connect emotionally and define relationships through their digital devices and Web platforms. They acutely feel both rejection and connection via digital media.

According to a recent International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) study, “students around the world reported that being tethered to digital technology 24-7 is not just a habit, it is essential to the way they construct and manage their friendships and social lives.”

Finally, it’s crucial that we understand both the positive and negative sides of social media, thereby putting cyberbullying into context and appreciating its place amidst all the benefits and opportunities that arise from digital connections.

To further the point, a growing body of research from the Australia-based Co-operative Research Centre for Young People, Technology and Wellbeing (YAW-CRC) supports the idea that SNSs have a much more positive effect on relationships and mental well-being than most of us may be aware.

According to the YAW-CRC’s The Benefit of Social Networking Services report:

“There is a demonstrated positive relationship between young people’s use of social networking services and self-esteem. … It is also argued that a sense of community and belonging has the potential to promote young people’s resilience, giving them the ability to successfully adapt to change and stressful events. … Overall, it appears that the social connections developed and fostered through SNS play an important role in promoting young people’s well-being.

Although cyberbullying represents the seamier side of social networking, it’s greatly outweighed by the support systems that youth develop online.

Too frequently it’s said that friendships in virtual communities do not carry the same lasting loyalty and profound connectivity that real-world relationships hold. Statements like those diminish the value that young ones place on their online relationships and in the end miss the importance of social networking in fostering a sense of self-worth and belonging on this Earth.

Things to Remember

Marginalized children and teens need to hear from trusted sources that their lives are not over if they experience digital persecution from peers. And parents, mentors and teachers should refer to resources (e.g., the Cyberbullying Research Center) to better understand social media’s place in self-esteem development.

If you are concerned for yourself or a child who is being harassed online, intervention programs make all of the difference. For more information, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) What a Difference a Friend Makes website.

About the Author

As president of the Internet Keep Safe Coalition, Marsali Hancock works to help families implement Internet safety and security in their homes; she brings 20 years of public service to this office. Over the past three years, she has developed and implemented Coalition strategic plans, overseen product development of the Faux Paw the Techno Cat Internet Safety Program and support curriculum, and gathered funding for all Coalition initiatives, to date, more than $5 million with a reach of more than 50 million people.Ms Hancock speaks internationally on Internet safety and security issues. Last year her many speaking engagements included the US Department of Justice Project Safe Childhood National Conference, the C3 Conference in Maryland, and a private meeting with China's Ministry of Science and Technology. She works closely with industry leaders, including corporate partnerships with Symantec, Adobe, AOL, BearingPoint, Dell, Disney, ENA, Intel, Oracle, Target, and Yahoo!


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