October 2, 2013

A Plea to Parents: Ask.fm & Teenage Suicides.

When I was asked if I wanted to take on this assignment my initial, internal response was no way.

Teenage suicide is horribly unfair and life-altering for anyone to deal with—and it’s not exactly the easiest thing to write about either.

Of course, death is bad enough when it’s someone you love or have spent a significant amount of time with, but when it’s a child, well, words cannot do justice to the pain and heartache felt by those it touches.

I, myself, experienced suicide within my own small community of friends as a teenager and it profoundly impacted more people around me than I could count on several hands—so I asked myself, could I handle this assignment?

When my answer remained a lingering, fear-based no, I knew it was something that I needed to tackle and see through—if only to help other teenagers and families out there to never have to be emotionally scarred and crippled by something this ghastly and heart-wrenching.

And being a kid is hard enough.

I often feel both relieved and extremely lucky that social media wasn’t even in existence—much less popular to the point of taking over other “normal” means of interaction—when I was growing up—and when most of the parents of today’s teenagers were growing up too.

I’ll be the first to shyly admit that I, as a self-confident adult of sound judgment and with a matured mind am still vulnerable to feeling inferior, uncool or emotionally low if I spend too much time on sites like Facebook, where the word of the day is often competition or comparing.

Factor in today’s omnipresent social media with the understanding that a teenager’s brain isn’t fully developed, that hormones run rampant and that new emotions and experiences lurk around every corner and hallway of school and of life and of self—and you have a recipe for potential disaster.

In 2013, the Latvia-based social media site Ask.fm was linked with several teenage suicides. 

This website allows users to remain anonymous—thus promoting cyberbullying—and several youths who commited suicide were discovered to have experienced online social difficulties like trolling and cyberbulling on Ask.fm before their untimely deaths.

The site, however, claims no responsibility for any of these deaths and, moreover, has yet to make anonymity no longer a user option and—with children as young as 13 years of age able to join Ask.fm—parents should absolutely be forewarned that this site is, apparently, no place for teenagers to be spending time.

On July 15, 2013, 15-year-old Daniel Perry from Scotland killed himself by jumping off a bridge in Edinburgh and—just this past week—reports surfaced of the September 17th hanging death of 14-year-old Izzy Dix.

minimum of eight other teenage suicides could be listed in a similar manner to Daniel Perry and Izzy Dix, all linked to cyberbullying on Ask.fm. 

One of these deaths, the hanging suicide of Hannah Smith on August 2, 2013, later encouraged British Prime Minister David Cameron to call for a boycott of websites that refuse to acknowledge responsibility for cyberbullying on their sites—Hannah had been encouraged by anonymous users “to ‘go die’, ‘drink bleach’ and ‘get cancer'” according to her grieving father—and worse than shunning any and all responsibility for such significant cases of bullying, Ask.fm told the media that Hannah Smith had trolled herself through anonymous accounts set up in her own name.

In an interview with the Daily Mirror, Hannah’s father showed disgust at the allegations, but included the point that, “‘If Hannah did do some of it herself, then it just shows how desperate she was’…Mr Smith said Ask.fm should be working to stop the abuse instead of deflecting blame for Hannah’s death,” but the unfortunately grim reality is that Ask.fm isn’t currently held to British online regulations, as it’s based in Latvia.

Yet bullying definitively affects a teenager’s state of mind and, ultimately, potentially places such youth at risk for suicide.

Researchers have, not surprisingly, linked teenage suicide to psychiatric health issues such as depression, as well as to bullying and harassment from peers, and while parents might be more aware of the dangers on sites like Facebook—particularly in the United States—the fact that anonymous-user sites like Ask.fm even exist is hugely problematic for parents and, especially, for teenagers with lower-thresholds for coping with aggressive cyberbullying.

Help for suicide prevention does exist, but it’s critical that the warning signs are not ignored or overlooked as symptoms of more expected teenage angst and frustration. 

“Many warning signs and symptoms of teen suicide feelings are similar to those of depression. Parents should be aware of warning signs. If they see the signs, they should talk to the child about their concerns, and seek professional help. These signs include:

Change in eating and sleeping habits.

Withdrawal from friends, family, and regular activities.

Violent or rebellious behavior, or running away.

Drug and alcohol abuse.

Unusual neglect of personal appearance.

Radical personality change.

Persistent boredom, difficulty concentrating, or a decline in the quality of school work.

Frequent complaints about physical symptoms often related to emotions, such as stomach ache or headache, fatigue.

Loss of interest in pleasurable activities.

Not tolerating praise or rewards.” 

And, understandably, the grieving families of teenage suicide victims are often at a loss to come to terms and cope with the tragic deaths of their loved ones, and sometimes blame and guilt weave into the handling of this loss.

Critics have said that Smith’s family, for example, should stop blaming Ask.fm when a website cannot be held responsible for their daughter’s death. Ask.fm has also called Smith’s death “a true tragedy” and vowed to work with police.

On the other hand, all Smith’s family—and countless others—have asked is that this site take responsibility for its on-going issue with cyberbullying, fed and fostered by the site’s users being able to send anonymous messages.

“Parenting websites joined the calls for greater scrutiny of social networks such as Ask.fm.

“It is not enough to say parents and teachers need to monitor their children’s internet use – they do, but there will always be a disconnect, and parents will always be one step behind,” said Netmums [a UK-based system of websites run by mothers] founder Siobhan Freegard. “We need action from pressure groups, experts and the owners of these websites themselves, but ultimately there needs to be action taken by the government.””

In the meantime, parents can be assured that the media at large is covering these somber cases with care and concern for the most important people involved—the kids—and several large companies have pulled their advertisements from Ask.fm in response to this call for better legislation.

Regardless, the threats from poorly regulated social media outlets like Ask.fm remain very real burdens for teenagers and their parents but parents can’t be expected to deal with this all on their own.

And although arguably few people desire or demand that the government monitor their children’s internet habits completely, maybe more of us should hop on the bandwagon to promote this minimum amount of caution and security. After all, teenagers might occasionally act like—and even think—they’re adults, but they need our protection and scrutiny—perhaps now more than ever.

If you or someone you love is at risk, visit this site for the U.K. and here if you live in the United States.

What to Do if You Suspect a Teenager of Being Suicidal:

“Youth who feel suicidal are not likely to seek help directly; however, parents, school personnel, and peers can recognize the warning signs and take immediate action to keep the youth safe. When a youth gives signs that they may be considering suicide, the following actions should be taken:

  • Remain calm.
  • Ask the youth directly if he or she is thinking about suicide.
  • Focus on your concern for their wellbeing and avoid being accusatory.
  • Listen.
  • Reassure them that there is help and they will not feel like this forever.
  • Do not judge.
  • Provide constant supervision. Do not leave the youth alone.
  • Remove means for self-harm.
  • Get help: Peers should not agree to keep the suicidal thoughts a secret and instead should tell an adult, such as a parent, teacher, or school psychologist. Parents should seek help from school or community mental health resources as soon as possible. School staff should take the student to the designated school mental health professional or administrator.” 


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Ed: Bryonie Wise

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