The recent rash of youth suicides has prompted an aggressive search for answers. While there are no doubt multiple factors involved, one common theme seems to be youth engagement of social media, and the bad social behavior found there.
Civility in discourse, courtesy, mutual respect, and concern for the welfare of the vulnerable are more than mere ornaments of our civilization. They counteract the forces that would otherwise tear it apart: Untempered self-interest, self-gratification, the sadistic urge to cause others to suffer, the formation of “in” and “out” groups amongst peers, and alienation. The immediacy of social media selects for the worst amongst us in how we relate to others. The qualities of civility, respect, concern, and self-restraint require room to breathe; they are sorely challenged to even exist in the moment in which the unrestrained tongue lashes out – often without consideration of the consequences. Once they are broadcast, these words cause irrevocable harm, especially to youth. Our youth, whose identity has not had a chance to consolidate, and whose sense of self has not yet developed resilience against the worst social behaviors we are capable of as a species, are the most vulnerable to lasting harm.
Bad behavior on social media knows no demographic limitation. However, our youth are the most susceptible to the damage done by aggressive and sadistic social media behavior. Even those amongst us with the strongest sense of self will eventually succumb to the drumbeat of negativity should it be directed against us long and hard enough. Now imagine our vulnerable youth, struggling with fundamental questions of who they are, getting cut off at the knees by the unrestrained torrent of other-directed hostility that shoots through youth social media discourse. The old adage “kids are cruel” has a kernel of truth, and nowhere is that cruelty more evident than youth social media.
The solution to the social-media fueled rash of youth suicides is civility in discourse. There must be in place a foundation of what is right and wrong in how we relate to each other, and that doing what is wrong has unpleasant consequences for the wrongdoer. Further, adults must model for our youth the kind of interpersonal relatedness we expect from them. We will get from them the behavior we show to each other. Finally, youth social media must be policed by the adults responsible for the youth’s behavior. Ideally, these are the parents, staying aware of their children’s social media presence, and engaged in their experience of it. The objection youth will voice against this lack of privacy can be effectively met with by giving them more unsupervised latitude in their social media presence once they have demonstrated that they know, and will obey, the “rules.” Or maybe “rule”: Treat others as you wish to be treated.