How Can Social Media Trigger Suicide-Related Behaviours?

clock 6 Min Read

Brencia Daphne

October 22, 2021

TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of sensitive topics such as suicide and self-harm.

Suicidal ideation is a relatively new term for a layman’s vocabulary but it is a concept as old as the existence of humans. The loss of a loved one due to the incidence of suicide is a universal pain. A pain that is all too familiar, and recognized globally.

Despite this, discussions on suicide or suicidal ideation are hushed down and swept under the rug. A study revealed that although there has been a reduction in the stigmatization of mental illnesses, suicide remains as stigmatised as ever. Research shows that — globally, suicide is the second leading cause of death in adolescents and young adults (age 10–24 years). However, detecting those at risk is, unfortunately, challenging.

One of the key reasons for an increased risk for suicidal ideation in recent years has been the advent of social media and the various risk factors that are associated with its unmoderated usage. You can break it down to cyberbullying, body-shaming, suicide contagion or just easy accessibility to message boards/chat rooms that discuss how to die by suicide.

However, social media alone is not the perpetrator — but it can act as a trigger to an underlying mental disorder or illness which might lead one to attempt suicide.

How Does Social Media Affect Our Lives?

With the rising popularity of social media over the last 20 years, there has been a significant change in how one connects and how information is being shared — particularly among teens, adolescents, and young adults.

One of the by-products of this digital life is people’s decisions being constantly influenced by the activities of friends or other popular virtual individuals.

The internet is a great source of information — easily accessible and limitless. However, sometimes the ideas gleaned off it by vulnerable young adults can be harmful to their mental well-being.

Comparing themselves to these popular individuals or influencers, young adults may set up unrealistic expectations and standards that are harmful to their mental health.

Again, the answer is not a complete boycott of the internet or social media platforms. Rather, moderated usage and a need for equilibrium to avert the dire consequences it poses on mental wellbeing.

What About Social Media’s Influence On Our Mental Health?

Social media platforms are built to have a reinforcing or addictive nature. When an individual uses social media, it automatically activates the reward centre of the brain, releasing dopamine. Dopamine, also known as the “feel-good chemical”, is generally linked to pleasurable activities such as eating food, physical exercise, sex or social interaction.

Social media provides that dopamine release at the tip of your fingers — without the inconvenience of gaining weight or undergoing strenuous physical exercise.

Sounds too good to be true, right? It is.

Unmoderated usage of social media creates an unhealthy pattern that later leads to deeper mental health issues. According to a British study performed in 2018, social media usage can lead to disrupted and delayed sleep. Which, in turn, can be associated with significant mental health issues like depression, increase in anxiety, memory loss and poor functioning or performance.

Social media can also affect one’s physical health negatively. According to researchers, individuals can suffer from physical manifestations of anxiety or depression in the form of nausea, headaches, muscle tension and tremors.

Few other reasons why unmitigated usage of social media can be detrimental to our mental health are:

  • The endless cycle of comparing one’s life to others.
  • Can lead to jealousy.
  • Encouraging the delusion that friends/followers on social media are real friends.
  • Triggers FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).
  • Triggers more sadness than well-being.

Suicide-Related Risk Factors That Are Associated With Social Media Usage:

  • Cyberbullying:

    A form of bullying/harassment that occurs virtually on social media platforms. Cyberbullying ranges from leaking personal information about an individual to posting hateful comments or responses to an individual’s post.

    Victims of online harassment, especially teens / young adults, are at an increased risk of self-harm and suicidal behaviour. They are also at a higher risk of suffering from anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation and low performance.

  • Body Image Dissatisfaction:

    Most glam posts by celebrities/influencers go through several layers of editing after being shot through a variety of filters. Not to mention, the impeccable makeup, perfect lighting, engaging decor, and directions from a professional social media team.

    Young minds are impressionable, their personality is still in the “work-in-progress” stage, and they love to emulate their object of adoration. When adolescents or young adults engage in social comparisons with glammed up posts of celebrities/influencers, it can lead to feelings of inadequacy, or dissatisfaction with one’s own body. Consequently, leading to lower self-esteem, depression, suicidal thoughts and even, severe eating disorders such as anorexia, or bulimia.

  • Substance Abuse:

    Social media platforms not only provide easy accessibility to drugs but can create the much-dreaded situation of peer pressure. Additionally, drug use is highly glamorised and normalised in popular song lyrics, which are repurposed into TikTok videos, Instagram Reels and Facebook Reels by celebrities or influencers.

    As mentioned above, teens are much more impressionable than adults. In fact, the rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and will not be developed until the age of 25. Therefore, drug use during the teenage years is dangerous because it arrests the teen’s mental development.

    However, such posts from their object of adoration might encourage teens/adolescents to emulate and participate in similar risky behaviours that are harmful to mental well-being — increasing suicide risk.

  • Suicide Contagion:

    Also known as the “Werther’s Effect”, this is a phenomenon where indirect exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviours in the family circle, peer group or of a popular celebrity figure increases the risk of suicide or suicidal behaviours in an individual.

    Especially, if it is a person who has had these thoughts for a while, and hasn’t acted upon them for one reason or another. Exposure to suicide-related news can motivate an individual like this to execute their suicidal ideation.

Suicide Prevention: A Ray Of Hope

“It’s critical that everyone starts looking at this new era with technology being involved in the field of suicide prevention.”

With over 2 billion users worldwide, social media provides an accessible platform to give and receive help. This has already been proven during the scary months of the COVID-19 pandemic — where social media platforms were key sources for finding medical services, and necessary information.

Social media platforms also serve as a way of letting other people know of a suicidal person’s intentions, potentially saving lives. Sites or platforms that are focused on suicide prevention can facilitate connections among peers with similar experiences. It can increase awareness of prevention programs, crisis helplines, and other support or educational resources that are available for public health and safety purposes.

Utilising social media to break the stigma around mental health is much more powerful than we think when it comes to raising awareness about topics such as suicide. Research suggests that around 60% of suicide cases are associated with mood disorders such as bipolar or major depressive disorder. Social media can be used to increase awareness on these mental health issues, in addition to helping with the diagnosis and treatment. Most importantly, it aids in accessing mental health care efficiently — providing the mental help and support every human being deserves.

-Written by Khyati Dutt & edited by Priya Darshini,Brencia D, and Nishtha N, for Heart It Out

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