Adults are hurting youth via ADULT abuse of social media

I regularly give talks to parents about youth and social media. Lately, I have been saying that adult use of social media may be causing more harm to youth than youth use of social media. I have a 15 minute video on this topic I made which you might want to view at

Adults hurt young people on social media (and news media) in these ways (and there are more.)

We pass on rumors about teenagers.

We share pictures or videos of young people doing unwise things which expose them to unmerciful treatment by others.

Perhaps you remember the story in the last year prompted by this video.

The young woman who pushed her friend appeared in court recently, which prompted more exposure. On social media, I noted countless adults calling for long prison terms for her. Many referred to her action as attempted murder. In any case, it is hard to imagine that this young woman won’t suffer for many years because of her terrible mistake–and because this was made a national story and a viral video distributed by ADULTS.

(WHY was this a national story? Would anyone argue that the worst thing that happened to a teenager that day was getting badly injured by being pushed into a river? Would anyone argue that the girl who pushed engage in the worst behavior of any teenager in the country that day? On that day, teenagers were murdered and sexually assaulted. And yet, the young woman who pushed her friend is nationally called out, by name. None of the perpetrators of the murder, assaults, or rape of teenagers had this level of national exposure.)

I believe the girl who pushed the other girl made a terrible, impulsive mistake based on a cognitive error. don’t see any reason to believe that she thought to herself, “Hey, I’m going to push my friend off this bridge so that she will hit the water and get badly injured.” Here’s what I suspect was her error. She had seen people jump off the bridge into the river and be just fine. Her error was in not thinking about the fact that being pushed off the bridge is not the same as jumping. For an impulsive acted likely based on that error, people are calling for her to go to state prison.

I bring up this case as an example of the vilification of young people, by name, by adults on news media and social media. There are lots of others.

I’m working on a pledge for adults regarding how they post on social media about teenagers. See what you think of what I have so far.

Knowing that I do not know all the facts (only what I have heard or read from others), I will not pass on rumors regarding teenagers and their behavior, because rumors hurt.

I will not share pictures or videos or accounts of young people doing unwise things which would expose them to unmerciful treatment by others.

Knowing that young people make mistakes, partly because of incomplete brain development, I will reconsider my calls for harsh judgment and punishment.

I will carefully consider not contributing to the public condemnation of minors who are named and whose identity can be determined, particularly mindful of my lack of knowledge of the full facts of incidents involving youth.

“suicide because of bullying”

My Facebook feed recently included a story about a teenager who died by suicide. There is a photo of this great-looking kid, and link to a Go Fund Me page for his funeral expenses. The Facebook post says he “took his life because he was bullied for being gay.” Notably, in an early interview, his mother downplayed the role of bullying in her son’s death. She said it couldn’t have helped him, but she declined to attribute this death to bullying. She focused on the fact that her son had struggled with depression for a long time and was under treatment for depression.

This tragic story illustrates a number of extremely serious problems. First, we are in a national crisis–an ACTUAL one– because of rising suicide rates. They are up in almost all demographics including teenagers. There is no doubt that LGBTQ youth have higher rates than non-LGBTQ youth, but rising suicide rates are sparing no demographic.

We’ve become increasingly aware of the problem of bullying, in general and, of course, the vulnerability to LGBTQ individuals to bullying. There’s then the ongoing concern that even with progress toward accepting LGBTQ people, there’s still so far to go.

But I have to also express my concerns about the trend toward people stating flatly that a person died by suicide because they were bullied. Suicide is complex in the aggregate and each individual case is complex. It usually is the result of converging internal, external, and interpersonal factors. Anytime one says that a person killed himself or herself for a specific reason, that is an incomplete story. That said, there’s never been any doubt in my mind that bullying is sometimes a cause of the psychological factors that can lead to suicide, and is sometimes a trigger for suicide attempts and death by suicide.

That said, there is no reason to conclude that most teenagers who die by suicide have been bullied, or that most teenagers who are bullied die by suicide.

My worry comes from noting in recent years that when a minor dies by suicide, within hours, social media and news reports talk about reports of bullying. My fear is that there is now a kind of cultural template: If a minor dies by suicide, it MUST have been because they were bullied. But it is fair to ask whether those social media posts and news stories are accurate? We know that people are willing to make all kinds of statements and pass on all kinds of rumors that aren’t true. Social media is full of people commenting freely about things they know nothing about. And if a news outlet quotes others as having heard the child was bullied, that doesn’t mean they were, nor does it mean that was *the cause*of the suicide. If a classmate or parent says to a reporter “She was bullied!” it could be because that person witnessed bullying. Or it could be that they are essentially saying, “She killed herself, so she was bullied.”

Good comes from the awareness of how harmful bullying can be, including that it could be a contributor to suicide. But there are downsides to assuming, without evidence, that a specific suicide is the result of bullying. 

These stories almost always include an element that the school was aware of the bullying and didn’t do anything about it. In effect, schools are blamed for the suicides of their students. I’m not saying that schools don’t sometimes fail to respond well to bullying. I am saying that responding well to bullying is far more difficult and complicated than people know. It isn’t fair to make those accusations of schools without evidence. People talking about it in the wake of a suicide may be weak evidence.

When someone says they believe a child killed himself or herself because of bullying, they should recognize that is an accusation against people–an accusation that they, in effect, caused a young person’s death. Suppose a group of kids did mistreat a peer who went on to die by suicide. Even if we know that the victim was bullied, we cannot know the extent to which that contributed to the suicide, if at all. That accusation can do real harm to those accused young people. We should similarly be concerned by adding to unverified accusations that school officials knew about the bullying and “didn’t do anything about it.”

More concerning to me is that if we believe the problem of teen suicide can be reduced to a specific cause, like bullying, then we are going to devote all the way-too-limited resources to trying to stop suicide by fighting bullying. I know this to be true: Teenagers get can get mental illnesses. They can develop episodes of clinical depression, for example. There doesn’t have to be an identifiable reason that any of us get depressed. But when we get certain mental illnesses, we then are at increased risk to die by suicide. Having mental illness or emotional or behavioral problems also makes us more prone to be bullied AND make us more susceptible to self-harm, which adds to how complicated these matters are. Knowing that is true, we know that we cannot address the problem of youth suicide without going about the very expensive business of getting our youth the mental health screening, evaluations, and treatment they need.

4 books about criminal justice I beg you to read.

I have a long interest in the criminal justice system. It began with my opposition to the death penalty. That research made me curious about police interrogations, false confessions, inequities in the criminal justice system, and related problems. Here are four books I beg my friends to read.

Lawrence Wright: Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory

  • This book is 22 years old and is criminally neglected, no pun intended. True story of an allegation of a massive satanic abuse cult in the northwestern USA. To this day, the book describes the most astounding case of false confessions I’ve ever heard about, even knowing about the Central Park 5. In spite of 22 years of begging people to read it, I can’t get the damn thing arrested.

Scott Turow: Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer’s Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty

  • Lawyer Scott Turow, best known for excellent crime fiction (Presumed Innocent, etc.), was asked to serve on a commission in Illinois on the death penalty. Its conclusions led the Governor of Illinois to commute all death sentences. Turow says he went into the experience with no strong opinion on the death penalty but came out on the other end as an abolitionist. (This is what happens, by the way, to anyone who actually studies the death penalty and who has a half-way open mind.) When I get into an argument on the death penalty, I offer to give the person a copy of the book. I tell them that if they read it and it doesn’t change their minds, I’ll buy them a steak dinner. I’ve yet to buy a steak dinner, but mostly because I CAN’T GET ANYBODY TO READ IT. Notice a pattern forming here?

Bryan Stevenson: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

  • Full disclosure. Bryan Stevenson is a hero of mine. We’re both on a board of advisors of an anti-death penalty group in Alabama. But it never meets in the same room and he has no idea who I am. He gave a famous Ted Talk and runs the Equal Justice Initiative. This beautiful book made me sputtering mad, familiar as I already was with some of the cases outlined in the book. I shook Mr. Stephenson’s hand at a book-signing and told him the book had made me so furious that I threw my Kindle. I told him that’s how angry white liberals show their anger. He laughed heartily, which made my month, on account of my mancrush on Bryan Stevenson. This one is a best-seller and a movie version is announced but I fear it might be in development hell.

Finally, the most recent read:

James Duane: You Have the Right to Remain Innocent

  • Short, but essential read by a former criminal defense attorney and now a law professor. He is known for a YouTube video in which he explains why you should never, ever talk to the police. Never, ever. He makes the case that suspects, guilty AND INNOCENT, get themselves in terrible trouble by waiving their Constitutional right to remain silent. Here’s what he says you should say to police who want to talk to you: Tell them your name. Tell them what you are doing right now (“I’m just out walking the dog, Sir.”). And tell them “I want a lawyer.” NOTHING else. You don’t believe this is good advice. That’s because you haven’t read the book. It’s a short read that will engage the mind of a Ph.D. or a smart 7th grader, which is really hard to do. Not only can this book keep innocent people out of jail, but it also will give the reader horrifying insights into how the criminal and prosecutorial systems abuse the things that are said during interviews with police, interviews that are fundamentally based on trickery.