Marcia Segelstein has covered family issues for over 25 years as a producer for CBS News and as a columnist. She has written for FoxNews.com, “First Things,” “World Magazine,” and “Touchstone.” She is a Senior Editor for “SALVO” magazine and author of the book Don’t Let the Culture Raise Your Kids.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released statistics revealing that children ages 10 to 14 are now more likely to die from suicide than from traffic accidents. The New York Times called it an “unprecedented rise in suicide among children at such young ages.” In 2014, the CDC reports that 425 children in that age group committed suicide. And while more boys took their own lives than girls, the rate of increase for girls was sharply higher, tripling since its last report.
Just a couple of weeks ago Kathy Schiffer detailed the tragic suicide of 11-year-old Bethany Thompson in Ohio, who was bullied by classmates over her “crooked smile.”
While the reasons for suicide are complex, stories like Bethany’s and others often include reports of taunting and mocking by peers, either in person or online. Peer pressure is nothing new, but the fact that it plays a part in middle school aged children deciding to take their own lives in unprecedented numbers is worth examining. Why and how has the influence of peers become so outsized?
Social media is clearly a factor. The Times quotes Dr. Marsha Levy-Warren, a clinical psychologist who works with adolescents, on the subject. “It’s clear to me that the question of suicidal thoughts and behavior in this age group has certainly come up far more frequently in the last decade than it had in the previous decade.” Sites such as Facebook expose children to humiliation exponentially. “If something gets said that’s hurtful or humiliating, it’s not just the kid who said it who knows, it’s the entire school or class. In the past, if you made a misstep, it was a limited number of people who would know about it.”
Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, along with cell phones that allow for constant communication with peers, can make it difficult for kids to retreat into the safe and secure world of family life. Children won’t find solace in the fleeting validation of peers. They need the unconditional love of parents and family. So it’s up to parents to do everything they can to be the primary influence in their children’s lives.
Dr. Leonard Sax, a pediatrician and psychologist, writes about this in his book, The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups. He suggests establishing rituals like family meals, regular movie and game nights, or weekly visits to a library or coffee shop – anything that can help cement family ties.
As for social media, Sax is clear. The more time kids spend with their peers, whether in person or online, the more they will be influenced by them and not their families. Parents should set guidelines about social media use and not allow cell phones at the dinner table.
In another of his books, Girls On The Edge, Dr. Sax raises the issue of “an unsatisfied appetite for the spiritual” and its effect on young women. Undoubtedly the same applies to young men. He quotes Courtney Martin, a young author who’s written about her own struggles and those of her friends. “Some of us, for lack of a ‘capital G’ God, have searched out little gods. We worship technology, celebrities, basketball players, rock stars, supermodels, video games…These empty substitute rituals, this misguided worship, intellectualization, addiction to moving fast has led my generation to a dark and lonely place.” Sax doesn’t write from a Christian perspective, but he cites various studies indicating that adolescent girls who are involved in their religious communities are less likely to engage in certain high-risk behaviors and – take note – they are considerably less likely to suffer from depression.
Blessed are the children whose parents keep the world, including peers, at bay. Blessed are the children for whom the unconditional love of parents – and of God – reign supreme.