Social media use among adolescents who died by suicide is a topic that has been extensively studied by researchers. A recent psychological autopsy study of 35 adolescents who died by suicide in the Netherlands sheds light on the harmful and supportive effects of social media use on the well-being and distress of young people. The study provides empirical evidence for the meaning of social media use in the lives of young suicide victims and offers recommendations for digital suicide prevention strategies. The findings were published in the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Mental Health.
The study found that while social media can be a source of peer support and recovery stories, it can also provoke and aggravate suicidal thoughts and behaviours. The harmful effects of social media included dependency, triggers and imitation, challenges, cybervictimisation, and psychological entrapment. These themes were more salient in young females, with a group of girls cultivating an online identity around their suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
Next-of-kin, particularly parents, faced various challenges to talk to adolescents about social media use, including technological illiteracy, online anonymity, and the youths’ closedness. The study recommends education to stimulate the digital literacy of parents, health workers, and educators, supporting conscientious social media use in young people, and extending the prevention of cyberbullying.
The study also highlighted the impact of severe cyberbullying or victimisation on youth well-being, which can press them towards a deadly end of their victimisation. Psychological entrapment, which has been proposed as an important psychological risk factor for suicide, was also observed.
Experts of law have debated whether cyberbullying should be criminalised but acknowledged that proper education has more merit. The study recommends rigorous prevention efforts for cyberbullying and victimisation.
The study offers handles for digital prevention strategies, emphasising the needs of young people suffering from suicidal thoughts and next-of-kin in relation to social media use. The supportive effects of social media can become overshadowed when social media are used as a replacement, rather than a supplement, of family and friends’ support and professional care.
To foster safe social media use, we may equip young people and next-of-kin with knowledge and skills but must also bear in mind the responsibility of social media platforms and policymakers to create a safer online environment. Specific attention should be paid to young females who are sensitive to harmful dynamics on social media. In doing so, we can harness the potential of social media for suicide prevention efforts and mitigate the risks of social media use for adolescents with suicidal thoughts.
The study provides valuable insights for suicide prevention efforts in the digital age. By recognising the harmful and supportive effects of social media use on the well-being and distress of young people, we can develop more effective digital prevention strategies. With proper education, support, and prevention efforts, we can harness the potential of social media for suicide prevention efforts and create a safer online environment for young people.