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How to Identify Suicide Risk: Preventing Suicides Arising Out of Social Media Harm

Social Media Suicide RiskResearchers have come to the tragic conclusion that social media exposure is linked to suicide and suicidal ideation, particularly among young people. For parents of child and teenage social media users, this reality is terrifying. How can you be prepared to identify the signs of suicidal ideation and prevent a tragedy from occurring?

In an emergency situation, like suspected self-harm or suicidal ideation, please seek immediate assistance by calling 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Warning Signs of Suicide and Suicidal Ideation in Children and Teens

Individuals who are thinking about suicide will often exhibit warning signs—feelings, behaviors, and changes that could indicate that something is so seriously wrong that they are considering ending their own life.

These warning signs can be subtle, and often, one or even a few of these red flags aren’t definitive indications that the person intends to take their own life. While parents shouldn’t jump to immediate and drastic conclusions based on potential warning signs, they absolutely should take these signs seriously. It’s important that parents investigate further and take action if they have any reason to suspect that something is wrong.

Changes in Patterns, Personality, and Temperament

You know your child—likely, better than anyone. When your child exhibits unexplained changes in their behavior patterns or personality, it may be a warning sign that something is seriously wrong.

Examples of the kinds of changes that could indicate a mental health disorder, a serious emotional problem, or suicidal thoughts may include:

  • Sleeping too much or not getting enough sleep
  • Eating too much or not eating enough
  • Demonstrating unusual irritability, anger, or depressed mood, particularly if these emotions seem out of proportion with the events that precipitated them or with normal teenage angst
  • Talking about or acting in ways that suggest deep feelings of sadness, guilt, shame, anger, fear, worry, anxiety, worthlessness, or hopelessness
  • Making drastic changes to their appearance, particularly in ways that are out of character for the individual

Adolescence is a time when an individual may change a great deal, so it can be difficult for parents to determine which changes are worrisome and which are part of normal development. Generally, changes that are not consistent with normal development include those that are sudden and out-of-character, those that last a long time or are extreme, and those that are accompanied by other concerning symptoms.

Self-Harm and Risky Behaviors

Suicide refers to taking deliberate actions with the intention of ending one’s own life. Risky behaviors and nonsuicidal self-injury behaviors do not necessarily constitute suicide attempts, but they may serve as warning signs that a young person could be having thoughts of taking their own life. A teen who begins driving recklessly, using drugs or alcohol, engaging in unsafe sexual behaviors, or otherwise taking unnecessary and out-of-character risks may be experiencing thoughts of death and suicide.

Cutting, burning, self-mutilation, and other methods of self-injury are often performed as a way of coping with intense emotional pain rather than for the deliberate purpose of attempting to take one’s own life, Mayo Clinic reported. However, these acts may still be precursors to a suicide attempt.

Violence against others, too, may be a warning sign that someone is at risk of committing suicide. Any bizarre or out-of-character behavior in a child or teen is worth a closer look, a conversation, and potentially consulting an expert, like a doctor or mental health professional.

Physical Symptoms

Mental health conditions can sometimes give rise to physiological symptoms. If your child complains of headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, or a lack of energy that isn’t explained by other physiological causes, disorders like anxiety and depression may be to blame. These conditions could put the person at risk of suicidal ideation.

Changes in Performance and Engagement

A person who is experiencing depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions or serious emotional troubles will often withdraw from their life. They may show an unusual lack of interest in seeing their loved ones, including friends and family members.

Often, children suffering from conditions like these begin performing poorly at school, and teens may also struggle at work. Failing classes at school and skipping school or work are potential causes for concern, especially if this behavior is unusual for your child. Even if your child is physically present at school, they may experience difficulties concentrating on schoolwork or remembering information.

A general lack of interest—particularly in activities and subjects they used to enjoy—is a potential warning sign of suicide. Additionally, a person contemplating taking their own life may demonstrate an overall lack of a sense of purpose.

Talking About or Taking Action to Commit Suicide

Many of the symptoms listed above could also indicate other mental health conditions. Some warning signs that more clearly pertain to having suicidal thoughts include talking about death or dying or making plans for the person’s death.

If your child is talking about dying or committing suicide or making plans for their own death, take action right away to protect them by calling 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Examples of talking about or planning for death may include:

  • Making comments about dying and death
  • Talking about “going away” or “not being here” more generally
  • Directly threatening or talking about suicide, even if the person plays it off as a joke
  • Making comments indicating a belief that things won’t get better or that the individual is trapped, helpless, or hopeless
  • Giving away possessions
  • Talking about, researching, or planning ways to end their life, including guns or drugs
  • Writing suicide notes or otherwise writing or drawing about death and suicide

In the event that your child demonstrates these warning signs, please get help right away—even if the person’s emotional state appears to be improving. A suddenly cheerful disposition following deep depression may seem like a good sign, but this change, in itself, could be a warning sign of suicidal ideation.

Suicide Risk Factors Among Children and Teens

Certain factors make children and teens more at risk of suffering from suicidal thoughts and potentially acting on those thoughts. Some of the risk factors parents should be aware of include mental health disorders, emotional issues, stressful life events, and problematic exposure to social media.

Diagnosable Clinical Mental Health Conditions

Mental health conditions that range from depression and anxiety to eating disorders can put a child or teenager at risk of developing suicidal thoughts. Addiction and substance use or abuse, too, could put a person at risk for attempting suicide.

Generally, a person who experiences suicidal ideation feels overwhelmed or trapped in some way that causes them to lose hope for the future. Because they feel hopeless, they may mistakenly think of committing suicide as the only way out of the pain they are going through.

Feelings of Sadness, Worry, or Hopelessness

A person may attempt suicide even if they haven’t been diagnosed (or don’t meet the criteria for clinical diagnosis) with a mental health disorder if they feel trapped or hopeless in other ways, according to Mayo Clinic. A young victim of cyberbullying or a teen suffering from extremely low self-esteem or poor body image, for example, may commit suicide because they can’t cope with the feelings they are experiencing.

Stressful Life Events

Just because a person is young doesn’t mean they don’t experience stress. Stress can come in many forms, from the normal—but emotionally trying—developmental milestones of adolescence to the loss of a loved one, a relationship, or a job or position of any kind. Moving to a new home or a new school can bring about stress. So can suffering from a serious or chronic health condition or having a loved one diagnosed with such a condition.

A stressful life event may cause feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, which—especially when combined with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety—may lead a person to contemplate suicide.

Excessive or Problematic Social Media Use

If social media use is a contributing factor to a child or teen’s suicidal feelings, it’s likely that their use of social media sites and apps has become problematic in some way. This may include spending an excessive amount of time scrolling, posting, or engaging in social media or losing interest in real-world activities and interactions in favor of virtual interactions.

Social media usage can even become addictive—by activating the rewards center of the brain and prompting the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, the same mechanism by which gambling and drug addictions develop—and may even lead to feelings of withdrawal.

Preventing Tragedies: What Should You Do If You Suspect Your Teen Is Suicidal?

Once you become aware of any potential warning signs that your child may commit suicide, take them seriously, and act immediately. Don’t leave your child or teen alone unsupervised or with access to anything that could potentially cause them harm. This includes access to social media sites and apps, particularly if you suspect that problematic social media usage is a factor in your child’s troubles.

Try to talk to your child in a gentle and nonjudgmental way, and be open to listening to what they have to say. Invalidating their feelings—even the ones that are leading them to contemplate taking their own life—may only make them feel more isolated. If needed, enlist the help of other trusted adults in your child’s life or of medical and mental health professionals.

You should bring in a professional to evaluate and assist your child right away. A physician, psychologist, licensed counselor or therapist, or another trained professional can perform a physical and mental evaluation and determine what steps to take to keep your child safe in the short term and to treat the problems that are driving the suicidal thoughts in the longer term. Depending on the situation, a professional may recommend inpatient treatment, outpatient therapy for the individual, family therapy, medications, or some combination of these interventions.

Suicidal ideation should be treated as a medical emergency, as your child may pose an immediate danger to themselves. Don’t wait to reach out to a doctor or for a physician’s office to call you back.

Call 911, take your child to a hospital’s emergency room, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the word “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

The Aftermath of a Young Person’s Suicide

Too often, families only discover that their loved one was so troubled after the tragedy has already happened.

Families and friends aren’t to blame for this terrible occurrence. This tragedy didn’t happen because you missed some clue that should have been obvious. A complex situation that may or may not have involved problematic social media exposure left your loved one feeling hopeless in some way. Perhaps the child or teenager couldn’t put their feelings into words to ask for help, or they downplayed the problems they were having to avoid feeling like a burden (even if their families would never have seen them that way).

Suicide can’t be undone, and we know that no amount of accountability, legal action, or financial compensation can ever make up for this loss. Even an attempted suicide can cause damage that can’t be reversed.

If your family has suffered a serious loss, we want you to know that you aren’t alone, and you don’t have to navigate this grief alone, either. Nothing can bring back all that you have lost, but getting answers can help you find some closure. So can holding accountable those who are to blame, such as social media companies that have been accused of targeting children with sites that include dangerous features and algorithms.

Research Linking Social Media Exposure to Suicide Attempts and Suicidal Ideation

13.5% of the study participants—teenage girls in the United Kingdom—reported an increase in the frequency of suicidal thoughts associated with using the photo-sharing social media site Instagram, accoridng to NPR.
Numerous research studies have linked social media exposure to suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. In particular, social media usage that is excessive or problematic in some other way—interfering with the individual’s life, happiness, and well-being in the real world—is a cause for concern.

According to a study published in Current Opinion in Psychiatry in 2019, “excessive or ‘problematic’ use of social media” increases the risk of suicide attempts among adolescents.

In an internal research study leaked by Facebook whistleblower and former data scientist Frances Haugen, 13.5% of the study participants—teenage girls in the United Kingdom—reported an increase in the frequency of suicidal thoughts associated with using the photo-sharing social media site Instagram, accoridng to NPR.

Cyberbullying, or bullying and harassment that takes place via social media sites and other electronic channels, is a particular concern. A 2018 research review published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that, among people under age 25, experiencing cybervictimization makes a person 2.35 more likely to engage in self-harm behaviors, 2.10 times more likely to demonstrate suicidal behaviors, 2.57 times more likely to attempt suicide, and 2.15 times more likely to suffer from suicidal thoughts.

Taking Legal Action Pertaining to Social Media, Suicidal Ideation, and Suicide

Families are increasingly holding social media companies accountable when they have contributed to suicide attempts. Bereaved parents have sued social media companies like Meta Platforms Inc., which owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, and Snap Inc., which owns Snapchat.

Often, these lawsuits allege that the social media site or app was dangerous in some way, such as by:

  • Targeting impressionable young users
  • Using addictive psychological tactics to get users to check the site excessively
  • Promoting hateful or abusive content with engagement-driven algorithms
  • Creating features, like anonymous messaging, that facilitate cyberbullying

No Fee PromiseIt isn’t always clear to parents precisely how social media contributed to the tragedy that befell their children, but what may be clear is that their troubled child’s social media use was problematic. By consulting an experienced social media attorney about your right to move forward with a potential social media suicide lawsuit, you can begin getting answers and, perhaps, some closure.

No parent should ever have to go through what you’re going through, but knowing that those to blame are being held accountable can offer families a path forward after the tragedy.

Our compassionate legal team is standing by, ready to answer your questions and help you understand your legal rights at no cost. If you’re ready to talk, we’re ready to listen, advise, and assist. The consultation is free and confidential; just call (866) 778-5500.

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