What should I know about the relationship between social media and suicide?

Michael RichQ: Yesterday one of my daughter’s friends committed suicide. She was a sophomore in college. I am saddened and angry. I went to the girl’s Facebook page and saw that she had 1,194 friends. All of her pictures show her with an impossibly bright smile. Her wall is full of messages sounding like, “I know we have only talked once, but you meant so much to me.”

I wonder if you have any advice or resources about the relationship between social media and depression/suicide. I need to educate myself and talk to my daughters and younger sons. I see a remarkable disconnect between their reality and how they appear on social media. I have always been annoyed by my daughter’s use of the word “friend” for someone she barely speaks with, and I dislike it when my children (and their peers) post pictures  where they are always partying, smiling, laughing, as if there was no other moment to share.

~ Saddened by suicide, USA

A: Dear Saddened,

I am so sorry for your daughter’s loss. I can understand your concern and your quest for answers and prevention strategies, especially given that the reality that this tragedy did not match the victim’s online persona at all. As you noticed yourself, there is often a disconnect between people’s actual lives and how they portray them on social media. In some cases, the portrait displayed on a public profile can be vastly different from how a person truly feels about herself.

The social media revolution has dramatically changed our relationships and what we can expect of them. I’ve often said that we lost a great deal when “friend” became a verb instead of a noun. 1,194 “friends” on Facebook are not necessarily friends to whom you can reach out when you are feeling lonely, sad, or isolated. Social media can be used to maintain near instantaneous connections with friends who have moved away and can reconnect you with friends with whom you’ve lost touch. In these ways, social media can be an important connection with one’s real life social network. However, when establishing relationships through social media, the technology can also make us feel close without the risk of intimacy and without the solid connection that occurs when talking to people on the telephone—or, better yet, face-to-face. We receive from relationships what we put into them, and while “friending” more than a thousand people can make one feel popular, neither party is necessarily committed to a deep, sustaining friendship.

Because social media is more public than direct one-on-one communication, it is often an environment where people are more likely to post their best photos and “best selves”—what they aspire to be, feel, and do. As such, the cheerful, upbeat photographs and messages on your daughter’s friend’s profile may have been what she hoped to be but was tragically not what she was really truly feeling.

For you and your children, it is important to understand what social media are and what they can and cannot do. Social media function more as broadcast tools than as communication tools, and we have to recognize that when we post silly videos, photos, or texts to hundreds or thousands, we are performing for them, not truly connecting with them. Sustaining, emotionally meaningful friendships develop over time and a cup of coffee, a meal, or shared experiences.

It is important that your children understand and respect social media as tools that can be used very effectively to maintain existing relationships over time and distance, but can never substitute for a friend in need who is a friend in deed.

Finally, to help you, your children and your community further process the complex and muddied relationship between social media and suicide, please see the following resources and studies:

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

~ The Mediatrician®