Imagine if someone asks you, in all seriousness, “Should I choose death or life?” I’m sure you’d answer: “Choose life!” Who the heck would be moronic enough to answer death? Unfortunately, some people did. When a 16-year-old girl in Kuching who was contemplating suicide put up an Instagram poll asking that question last week, almost 70% of respondents voted for death. And, apparently, that triggered her choice to kill herself.
The story hit headlines all over the world – once again, we’re in the news for the wrong reasons! In London, the incident was raised in the British Parliament to Instagram chiefs, there for an inquiry on addictive technologies.
There was talk of charging those who voted for her death with abetting suicide. Malaysia’s Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman said suicide rates and mental health issues were rising. Yes – so what is your ministry doing? What are our cities, schools, communities doing?
Suicide is preventable. Suicidal feelings are often short term and specific to situations. Restrict the means to suicide – firearms, poisons or whatever – and suicide rates drop. Suicide bids with paraquat, a pesticide, were once common in Malaysia because of availability.
Most suicidal people have ambivalent feelings about dying. My father operated on many patients who had attempted suicide by poisoning. All wanted to live afterwards. To give them a chance at life again, he would remove their eroded oesophagus and put the stomach higher in the chest as a conduit, a pioneering technique he was well known for.
Today, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people (15 to 29 years) worldwide, after road accidents, the World Health Organisation says. Every 40 seconds, someone dies from suicide.
In Malaysia, one in five youths have suffered depression and 10% have had suicidal thoughts, the 2017 national mental health survey found. Mental health measures are urgently needed.
Mental health issues are rising, especially among teens; social media use is growing, and teens are heavily into it – can you see where this is going? In February I addressed my column to teenagers out of concern (“Just be the individual that you are”, Feb 24; online at bit.ly/star_teens).
Social media has not been around long enough for us to draw hard conclusions, but research indicates increased time on social media has a negative mental impact.
In March, the American Psychological Association released results of a national survey showing a sharp increase in youth experiencing negative psychological symptoms – and specifically among those born in 1995 or later, the “iGen”. The biggest spike in symptoms occurred in 2011 – soon after the boom in social media began.
The rate of young adults with suicidal thoughts or outcomes (attempts or deaths) increased by a shocking 47% (from 2008 to 2017). Depression also shot up. But no corresponding rise was seen in older adults.
Another study, in The Lancet medical journal, found social media contributed to low self-esteem, poor body image, poor sleep, online harassment and more.
Instagram has often been deemed the most detrimental to mental health. So concluded a study by Britain’s Royal Society for Public Health in 2017. Snapchat followed closely. All platforms had negative impact – except YouTube.
Instagram is full of wonderful pictures of people with perfect lives. Think about how that impacts an impressionable 14-year-old whose life has problems....
I spoke to a few teen users of Instagram. Most used it to keep up with friends. Some talked about fomo (fear of missing out).
Tara, 19, tells me: “I have Instagram knowing it’s wrong. It’s a young person’s thing. But I’m aware of its dangers.” She says images can seem “fake” and “not real”, yet are influential.
The British Sun newspaper has called the app “Insta Sham” because of “ridiculously fake” photos of influencers doing extreme makeovers or creating unbelievable “bikini bodies”.
“People don’t think about the subconscious messages being sent. When you spread something dark, it can catch on quickly and influence people,” says Tara.
Instagram recently introduced “sensitivity screens” to block self-harm images following the death of a 14-year-old British girl, Molly Russell, who apparently was prompted to take her own life after viewing disturbing images on Instagram.
There’s one immediate solution to this: parents should restrict phone time. Ban phone use at night. Or forbid certain apps. It’s a hard battle to fight – I constantly negotiate screen time with my two children – but a necessary one.
Life on screens can be desensitizing and dehumanizing. We click away mindlessly, even in life or death polls. We don’t see cries for help. Suicide can often be a rash act, so when someone reaches out, for goodness sake, help them! Peers supporting peers can be powerful.
What really went wrong in that case last week was the lack of humanity. Online, we lose emotional and physical connections. Meaningful conversations. Eye contact. Hugs. A listening ear. We need to relearn being human again.
Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at email@example.com.
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