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Study: ‘Traumatic Childhoods’ Linked to Early Death as Adults

“Traumatic childhoods increase the risk of death before the age of 50 by up to 80%,” reports the Mail Online.

The news is based on research that followed children born during one week in 1958 to see whether they died prematurely (before a ge 50) and to see what adverse events they went through as children.

boy crying while parents fight in backgroundThe researchers looked at childhood adverse experiences as reported by parents and teachers when the children were 7, 11 and 16 years of age. These bad experiences included spending time in (foster*) care, suffering from neglect, parental separation, or having a family member in prison. The researchers also took into account factors such as socioeconomic status and lifestyle during childhood and when people were young adults.

Give children the best start in life

Children can’t help their circumstances. Whatever their background and experiences, one of the best things you can do for your child is to have them vaccinated against the common childhood diseases.

These often potentially fatal diseases, such as measles, can be prevented simply by a free injection available from the NHS.

Find out when to get your child vaccinated at your local GP practice.

Overall, adverse childhood experiences were associated with a higher risk of death before 50. For those who had suffered two adverse experiences, this risk was 57% higher for men and 80% higher for women, compared to those with no such experiences.

If there is a true link, we still don’t know the exact reasons. The researchers speculate that adverse events change the way the brain is wired or that people who have experienced adversity develop short-term coping strategies that lead to long-term health damage. However, this can’t be proved by the current study. It may be that as yet unaccounted for factors explain the link between adverse events and premature mortality.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from INSERM (The French National Institute for health and medical research) and other French and British research organisations and universities. It was funded by the French Institut National du Cancer and the Institut de recherche en santé publique and La Ligue nationale contre le cancer.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed European Journal of Epidemiology.

The Mail Online mostly reported the results of this study accurately. However, it’s headline cherry-picked the highest premature mortality figures (those of women experiencing two or more adverse life variables). The coverage also failed to mention the limitations of the study design (although the study was large and used the most appropriate study design, cohort studies cannot show causation, only association).

What kind of research was this?

This was a cohort study. It examined whether events causing stress responses during childhood are linked to premature mortality – defined in this study as death before 50 years of age.

This is the ideal study design to investigate this issue, although it cannot prove that events causing stress responses during childhood cause premature mortality, as other factors, called confounders, could be responsible for any association seen.

What did the research involve?

The researchers used results from 7,816 men and 7,405 women who were part of a cohort study of people born during one week in 1958 in Great Britain (the 1958 National Child Development Study).

Information was collected when people were 7, 11, 16, 23, 33, 42, 46, and 50 years of age.

Childhood adverse experiences were reported by parents and teachers at 7, 11 and 16 years of age. The following were counted as adverse experiences:

  • Being put into (foster*) care by age 7, 11 or 16
  • Physical neglect, including being undernourished or dirty at ages 7 or 11
  • Having a family member in prison or on probation (at age 11) or in contact with the probation services (age seven or all) or being imprisoned or on probation at age 16
  • Being separated from their father or mother due to death, divorce or separation at 7, 11 or 16 years of age
  • Having a family member with a mental illness at ages 7, 11 or 16 or having someone in the household in contact with the mental health services at ages 7 or 11
  • Having a family member with an alcohol abuse problem at seven years of age

Deaths were monitored through death certificates. The researchers looked at the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and death before 50 years of age after controlling for “early life variables” and for characteristics at 23 years of age. These early life variables included:

  • Mother’s age at birth
  • The number of people per household
  • Whether the mother’s partner was employed in manual or non-manual labour
  • Mother’s educational level
  • Maternal smoking during pregnancy
  • Gender
  • Gestational age at birth
  • How many pregnancies the mother had previously had
  • Birth weight
  • Breastfeeding
  • Congenital conditions
  • Moderate/severe disabilities
  • Chronic respiratory or circulatory conditions
  • Sensory impairments
  • Special schooling

Characteristics at 23 years of age included:

  • Educational attainment
  • Occupational social class
  • Symptoms of depression
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Smoking status
  • Body mass index (BMI)

What were the basic results?

  • In the cohort, 70% of people had experienced no adverse childhood experiences, 22% had experienced one adverse childhood experience and 8% had experienced two or more adverse childhood experiences. Between the ages of 16 and 50 4.1% of men and 2.4% of women died.
  • In men, the risk of death was 57% higher among those who had experienced two or more adversities compared to those men who had experienced none (hazard ratio (HR) 1.57, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.13 to 2.18).
  • In women, the risk of premature mortality increased with increasing number of adverse experiences. Women with one childhood adverse experience had a 66% increased risk of death (HR 1.66, 95% CI 1.19 to 2.33) and women who had had two or more had an 80% increased risk (HR 1.80, 95% CI 1.10 to 2.95) compared to women who had had none.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers conclude that the results, “point towards early life stressful events, particularly in a child’s [family] environment, being risk factors for long term health across the lifecourse and premature mortality possibly via the mechanisms of biological embedding which may occur via social, neuro-cognitive or behavioural pathways.”


This large cohort study found that (after taking into account early life and young adult sociological and lifestyles) being exposed to adverse childhood events was associated with an increased risk of premature death.

In men, having two or more adverse childhood experiences was associated with a 57% higher risk of death by age 50, compared to men who had none. In women, one childhood adverse experience was associated with a 66% increased risk of death, two or more was associated with an 80% increased risk of death by age 50, compared to women who’d had none.

Although the study was large, collected data as it went along (prospectively), and used the most appropriate study design, cohort studies cannot show causation, only association. And as this was a long-term cohort study, it had to deal with a significant amount of missing data. It did this by assuming that data was missing at random.

If there is a true link between adverse events in childhood and premature death, the reasons for this remain unknown. The researchers suggest that childhood exposure to adverse experiences could affect brain or other biological system development. Or, they suggest, it could encourage behaviours which reduce stress in the short-term but increase mortality in the long-term. However, this is speculative.

It is possible that the study has not been able to fully account for all health-related or environmental factors that could be associated with both adverse events and premature death, and it could be these that influence the relationship.

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter.


“Traumatic childhoods increase the risk of death before the age of 50 by up to 80%,” reports the Mail Online. The news is based on research that followed children born during one week in 1958.

Links to Headlines

Links to Science

Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US readers.


Tips for Protecting Your Kids from Child Abuse

The chances of your child being harmed by an adult are very small. But there are still steps you can take to protect your child.

People who abuse children can come from all walks of life, and all ages, classes and professions. They can also be women.

protecting-kids-from-child-abuseOften, victims of child abuse know their abuser. It could be a family member, friend or someone in a trusted position, such as a coach or mentor. After abusing a child, abusers may tell a child to keep it a secret and even threaten them.

If you think a child is being abused, take action. Call the NSPCC child protection helpline on 0808 800 5000 or textphone 0800 056 0566 to talk about your concerns (in the US call your local Social Services or Children and Family Services Department*). If your child or a child you know is abused, call the police immediately. You could also talk to your GP (family doctor*), health adviser or social services for advice about child abuse.

How Child Abuse Happens

Abusers often ‘groom’ children before they abuse them. Grooming is the term used when an abuser gets to know a child, perhaps buying them presents or taking them for days out in order to gain their trust.

If a child doesn’t feel loved or is insecure at home they may be more vulnerable.

Abusers often put themselves in positions or places where they can be close to children, for example playgrounds, nurseries, parks and youth groups.

Sometimes, people who abuse children make friends with parents in order to get close to a child. Single parents may be more vulnerable to this.

Protecting Your Child

Perhaps the best thing you can do for your children is to make them feel loved and valued. Give them the confidence to believe in themselves and to get out of situations they don’t feel comfortable in.

Be very cautious if an adult acquaintance seems to be more interested in your child than you, for example if they always want to babysit or take your child out alone.

Let your child know that you are always there for them and will believe what they tell you. Children rarely lie about abuse.

Educate your children about stranger danger:

  • Give your child a curfew and emphasise how important it is that they let you know where they are at all times.
  • Make sure your child is not alone when they go out. Go with them to meet their friends and pick them up straight after.
  • Teach your child that it’s safer to hang around with a group of friends. If they have to walk to school without you, encourage them to walk with other children, particularly in winter when it gets dark early. Or, if you can’t pick them up, arrange for another friend or family member that your child is familiar with to meet them.
  • Teach your child to ignore strangers who talk to them. They can pretend they haven’t heard and walk away quickly.
  • Tell them that if an adult does anything to make them feel afraid, they must speak up and get to a safe place immediately.
  • Tell your child that they must never get into a car with someone they don’t know. If someone in a car asks them for directions, they must keep away from the car so that they cannot be grabbed and can run away if they need to.

Educate Your Child

Educate your child from an early age about his or her body. Let them know that their body is their own. Tell them which parts are private and should not be touched by anybody.

Sex education should start early so children understand what is appropriate and what is not. Children who are abused often don’t understand what is happening to them. Learn more in Talking to your teenager about sex.

Many children feel afraid to disobey an adult. Teach them that if any adult makes them uncomfortable, scares them or touches them in a way that is not right, whether it’s a stranger or someone they know, they have the right to say no and to shout for help.

Tell them that they should get away from that person immediately and then come and tell you.

Your Child Online

Chat rooms and social networking sites on the internet are ideal for abusers and paedophiles looking for children. Abusers can pretend to be anyone, and gain the confidence and trust of a child.

Don’t panic and ban your child from using the internet altogether. The internet is a useful tool. If you ban them from using it, they won’t learn how to use it safely.

Instead, take an interest in what they do online, and keep an eye out for changes in their online behaviour. For example, they may suddenly spend much longer online, or trying to hide what they’re doing.

Supervise your child to make sure they don’t visit any sites that you’re unhappy with.

Talk to your child about the dangers of chatrooms and social networking sites. Tell them never to give out personal details such as their real name, address, email or phone number.

Ask them what they would do in certain situations, for example if someone in a chatroom asks for personal information.

Always have your family computer in a room where you can see what your child is doing.

It may be best to prevent a young child from posting photographs of themself and their friends online. Talk to the parents of your child’s friends about this, and find out what their policy on internet use is. Other children could post group photographs that include your child.

If your child makes a friend on the internet and wants to meet up with them in person, never let them go without an adult. Go with them yourself if you can, and make sure you meet in a public place with lots of people around, for example a café or shopping centre.

Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US audience.


Predators Pt 2: Grooming-How Pedophiles Get Into Our Kid’s Lives

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two part series on sexual predators written by David Pittman, the founder of Together We Heal – an organization dedicated to helping survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA).  Today’s focus is on helping parents understand how predators target, approach, groom and eventually insinuate themselves into a child’s (and even a family’s) life.  Since 90-95% of CSA occurs at the hands of someone that is known, trusted and often loved, it is essential to be educated on what signs or red flags to be looking for. The once held notion of “stranger danger” is a myth. Education is the key to learning what are the real threats to children. Our hope is that by teaching you how to recognize the signs that someone is targeting your child, together we can keep them from becoming one more CSA statistic.   (Click here to read last week’s post on How to Talk With Your Kids About Sexual Abuse).


Together We Heal logoAfter posting my story of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) on the Together We Heal website, I was asked an important question by a concerned parent. How did this monster get into your life?

The answer is both simple and complex. The easy part is that they don’t have the appearance of a monster. They don’t look like some James Bond or Cartoon character villain, with beady eyes, horns coming out of their heads, or a big neon sign saying, “STAY AWAY, PEDOPHILE HERE!” Sadly, they almost always look like everyone one else. The gentle minister, the encouraging coach, the neighbor always willing to lend a hand or the family member who seems to be there just when you need them.

And this is where the complexity comes in. How do you distinguish genuine care from pure evil? While there are no set in stone answers, there are some clues to look for and ways to evaluate what is going on. And though nothing is fool-proof, I hope it’s at least a start for you to help figure out friend from foe.

One of the most frightening things about pedophiles/sexual predators is that they seem so “normal”. They are notoriously friendly, nice, kind, engaging and like-able. And they target their victims, often insinuating themselves into that child’s life through their family, school, house of worship, sports, and hobbies. But don’t ever forget, pedophiles are professional con-artists and are experts at getting children and families to trust them. They will smile at you, look you right in the eye and make you believe they are trustworthy.

So let’s first define exactly what grooming is and then we will go into the steps involved.

Predator-relationship-with-the-childErika Lyn Smith, of the “Missing And Exploited Children Site”, gives a thorough explanation of what we are talking about.

The act of grooming a child involves spending time, energy, and money to make a child and even the parent or parents feel comfortable with the relationship. Only after a trusting relationship is established will the child predator start to become more intrusive and to test the boundaries of the relationship by pushing limits. These violations may include hugging, kissing, tickling, wrestling, and invading a child’s privacy while showering, dressing or toileting.

Initially a pedophile will begin to violate the physical boundaries, by accidentally touching the child through his or her clothes to see what kind of reaction he or she receives. If a child or parent questions the action the predator will likely back off and regain the trust of the child or parents before proceeding.

By befriending the parent or parents, the pedophile gains the trust of everyone in the family. Children are less likely to tell when the relationship turns sexual if the adult is someone he or she knows personally or is a friend of mom or dads. In addition, mom and dad may be less likely to listen to a child when it involves a good friend of the family.

Single parents, especially mother’s will be looking for a positive male role model if there is no father involved. Single mothers are more likely to accept offers from a child’s coach or school for help when offered. All parents needs to be vigilant when it comes to allowing someone access to his or her child, and question friendships or relationships that take up a lot of a child’s free time.

Signs that a pedophile may be grooming your child include:

  • Telling a child, he or she is a “special” friend
  • Bringing a child special mementos or gifts
  • Talking to a child about adult issues like sex or marriage problems
  • Giving a child alcohol, cigarettes or drugs
  • Inviting a child to spend the night or go camping

A former F.B.I. agent named Kenneth V. Landing wrote about 5 steps he identified as the general process most sexual predators use in grooming children to be their next victims. Below you will find this listed.

  • Stage 1: Identifying a Possible Victim  Although pedophiles differ in their “type” regarding age, appearance and gender, all pedophiles will look for a victim who seems in some way vulnerable.
  • Stage 2: Collecting Information  The next step is for the pedophile to collect as much information on the targeted victim as possible. This is most commonly done through casual conversations with both the child and the parents or caretaker.
  • Stage 3: Filling a Need  Once the individual has the information he needs, he then becomes part of the child’s life by filling a need. If the victim is poor, for example, the pedophile will provide him/her with expensive toys. If the victim is lonely, the pedophile will act as a friend.
  • Stage 4: Lowering Inhibitions  The pedophile will then start to lower the child’s inhibitions concerning sexual matters. He may come up with games or activities that involve getting undressed, make sexual comments or show the child pornographic images or pictures.
  • Stage 5: Initiating the Abuse  At this final stage, the pedophile begins to sexually abuse the child.

Another technique used by these predators is called the 4 “F’s”:  Friendship, Fantasy, Fear and Force.

  • Friendship is built through nurturing a relationship through bonding. The adult will usually give the child gifts, take them on special outings and show them a lot of attention.
    Once a child trusts an adult, the adult can influence the child’s attitude regarding sexual behavior. Grooming may include introducing sexual content to the child as an example of what the perpetrator desires and to give the impression that the depicted acts are acceptable. If the child thinks that sex between children and adults is ok, it’s easier for the pedophile to victimize the child.
  • Then they will introduce Fantasy”. They will manipulate the child with a false sense of security. They will pay a lot of attention to the child’s problems and personal matters and offer advice and counseling. They will tell the child how much they love them and that they want to have a long term, loving relationship with them.
  • Once the child has opened up to the pedophile, they will begin to instill “Fear” by threatening to share the child’s secrets with their classmates or their parents. Sometimes they will even threaten the life or safety of the child or of their family and friends It’s all a manipulation tactic to get the child to do what the pedophile wants them to do.
  • Ultimately, the pedophile uses “Force” to sexually exploit the child.

While these are by no means the only ways sexual predators work their way into ours and our children’s lives, they are at least a beginning place for parents to be on the lookout. The more information you have and the better educated you become, the more you will be able to best protect your kids.

Knowledge truly is power and we cannot give over our power to these heinous criminals. They will use every trick in the book so you have to know what they’re doing. Even more frightening, pedophiles and sexual predators work together to help each other figure out ways to gain access to our kids. Don’t believe it, read this article about a 170 page, “How To” publication put together by and for adults who prey on innocent children. They are making a concerted effort to help each other so we have to be more vigilant, more active and tireless in our work to combat these predators.

I hope this is a good start on helping you to protect your children. God knows I wish my family had been told this when I was a child. Maybe they would have been able to stop my abuse before it began. So please take a page from our family history book, educate yourselves and talk with your kids.



  • Kenneth V. Lanning, Special Agent, F.B.I.
  • Erika Lyn Smith
  • America’s Most Wanted
  • WBTV

Erin’s Law: Teaching Kids to Recognize & Avoid Sexual Abuse

Editor’s Note: In June of 2014, South Carolina became the 16th State to pass Erin Merryn’s law – a law that requires school districts to teach children to tell on anyone who tries to touch their private parts. Speaking as a survivor, it is difficult for me to understand why any state would not endorse this.  

In honor of Pediatric Safety’s 5 Year Bloggiversary, we are publishing 5 of our favorite posts – one from each year since the day we started. This is our third “look back” post.  It was written by Jill Starishevsky, a NY Assistant District Attorney who has dedicated her career to helping victims of child abuse and sex crimes. Our thanks to her for reminding us that, as horrifying as it is to think about – child sexual abuse DOES happen – and it is up to us to educate our children so that we can prevent it from happening to them. More information on Erin’s law can be found here.


In October 2011, New York State announced it would join the ranks of those states that have introduced a bill Kids in Classentitled Erin Merryn’s Law. The measure would require schools to make a change to their existing curriculum for child abduction to include child sexual abuse prevention. This alteration would give critically important information to victims – many of whom do not know there is a way out of their horrific situation. As a child, Merryn was abused by both a neighbor and a family member. She says she stayed silent due to a combination of threats from her abusers, and the lack of knowledge about available help.  If passed, New York would become the third state to enact Erin Merryn’s law, following Missouri and Merryn’s home state of Illinois.

In light of recent events at our nation’s universities, parents should continue to be vigilant about teaching child sexual abuse prevention in the home. By age three, children should be taught that their bodies have private parts and no one is to touch those parts (with the necessary medical and hygiene exceptions). Of course children should be taught the correct terminology for their body as nicknames can be confusing and delay a disclosure.

The following are some tips that are often overlooked:

  1. When someone tickles a child, if the child says No, all tickling should cease. Children need to know that their words have power and No means No.
  2. Teach children that it is OK to say No to an adult. Without permission from you, many children may be reluctant to do so even if the adult is doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable.
  3. Teach children that all of these lessons apply to other children as well. If another child is touching your child in a way that makes him or her uncomfortable, teach your child to say No, get away and tell someone.
  4. Be careful with the language you use when speaking with children. Avoid saying things such as “Have a good day and do everything your teacher tells you to do.” Children are very literal and need to be told that they should not listen to someone who is telling them to do something that might be harmful to them or to someone else.
  5. Let your child decide how they want to express affection. If they do not want to hug or kiss Grandpa goodbye or sit on Santa’s lap, do not force them. You take away their power over their own body if you force them to be demonstrative in their affection. Children need to be taught their body belongs to them.
  6. Teach children to respect the privacy of others. They should learn to knock on doors that are shut before opening them and close the door to the bathroom when they are using it. If they learn to respect the privacy of others, they may be more likely to recognize that an invasion of their privacy could be a red flag meaning danger.
  7. Use your poker face. Encourage your child to come you if they have questions about anything. Avoid looking shocked or embarrassed by the question. Children who sense their parents’ discomfort will be less inclined to approach the parent next time he or she has a question.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused by age 18 in the United States. 93% of the abuse happens at the hands of those entrusted with the care and protection of the child. With the passage of Erin Merryn’s Law, critical information will reach every child in New York State.

Is your state advocating for the welfare of children?

My Body Belongs to Me

As a prosecutor of child abuse and sex crimes in New York City for more than a decade, I My Body Belongs to Me-small2have often encountered children who were sexually abused for lengthy periods of time and suffered in silence. One case in particular had a profound impact on me and compelled me to write a children’s book called My Body Belongs to Me.

I prosecuted the case of a 9-year-old girl who had been raped by her stepfather since she was 6. She told no one. One day, the girl saw an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” about children who were physically abused. The episode, “Tortured Children,” empowered the girl with this simple message: If you are being abused, tell your parents. If you can’t tell your parents, go to school and tell your teacher. The girl got the message and the very next day went to school and told her teacher. I prosecuted the case for the District Attorney’s office. The defendant was convicted and is now serving a lengthy prison sentence.

I have thought often of that very sweet, very brave 9-year-old girl. It occurred to me that after three painful years, all it took to end her nightmare was a TV program encouraging her to “tell a teacher.” I wrote My Body Belongs to Me to continue that message. It endeavors to teach children that they don’t have to endure sexual abuse in silence. Parents and educators can use it as a tool to facilitate an open dialogue with youngsters.

The story is a simple scenario involving a gender neutral child who is inappropriately touched by an uncle’s friend. The powerful message really comes through when the youngster tells on the offender and the parents praise the child’s bravery. The last page shows a proud, smiling child doing a “strong arm” pose. The text assures them that it wasn’t their fault and by speaking out the child will continue to grow big and strong. It is a compelling and uplifting message.

The “Suggestions for the Storyteller” section is an important, interactive feature that facilitates the discussion to follow. It will make any caregiver feel more comfortable talking about this important subject, thereby helping to PREVENT the unthinkable from happening to their child. Research tells us that child sexual abuse does not discriminate. It is a problem that affects everyone.

  • In the United States, approx. 1 of 4 girls and 1 of 6 boys is sexually abused before the age of 18.
  • 47% of child sexual abuse victims wait 5 years or more to speak up, if they ever do.
  • 93% of child sexual abuse victims are abused by someone they already know.

It is my sincere hope that by educating girls and boys about this taboo subject, My Body Belongs to Me will prevent them from becoming victims in the first place.


  • To keep your children safe:
    1. No secrets. Period. Encourage your children to tell you about things that happen to them that make them feel scared, sad or uncomfortable. If children have an open line of communication, they will be more inclined to alert you to something suspicious before it becomes a problem. The way I effectuate this rule is as follows: If someone, even a grandparent, were to say something to my child such as “I’ll get you an ice cream later, but it will be our secret”, I firmly, but politely say “We don’t do secrets in our family.” Then I say to my child “Right? We don’t do secrets. We can tell each other everything.”
    2. Teach your child the correct terms for their body parts. This will make them more at ease if they need to tell you about a touch that made them feel uncomfortable.
    3. Teach your child to tell a safe person if someone touches them in an inappropriate way. Discuss with children the importance of telling a parent, teacher or other trusted adult right away.
    4. Let children decide for themselves how they want to express affection. Children should not be forced to hug or kiss if they are uncomfortable. Even if they are your favorite aunt, uncle or cousin, your child should not be forced to be demonstrative in their affection. While this may displease you, by doing this, you will empower your child to say no to inappropriate touching.
  • If you choose to use My Body Belongs to Me as a tool for teaching your family about body safety, here are some suggestions:
    1. Read the book at least once for enjoyment before using it to get into a serious discussion.
    2. After reading the book, help lead an open-ended discussion by asking questions such as the following: What are your parts that are private, Why did the child get scared, What did the uncle’s friend do, What did he tell the little child, If someone touches your private parts, should it be a secret, Why did the uncle’s friend put his finger up to his lips, What did the child do when he did that, Were the mom and dad happy when the child told them what had happened, What did they do, If the child did not tell the parents, who else could be told, How does the child feel in the picture at the end?
    3. Find teachable moments with your child to reinforce the lessons learned in the book.


Editor’s Note: We first introduced you to Jill Starishevsky and “My Body Belongs to Me”  in February, 2010.  At the time, her book had been self-published and was only available for purchase on her website.  In May 2014, My Body Belongs to Me will be re-released and available for purchase on Amazon (congratulations Jill!).  And, since April is National  Child Abuse Prevention Month, we  thought it the perfect time to re-introduce this wonderful book to the Pediatric Safety community.  On a side note – if you decide you want a copy before the end of April, click on over to her site and tell her we sent you – she’ll take good care of you.

When Private Goes Public: Social Networking and Suicide

“Jumping off the gw bridge sorry,” Tyler Clementi, age 18, posted on his Facebook status on September 22, 2010.

And then he did just that. A desperate act fueled by humiliation, Clementi committed suicide after his Rutgers University roommate secretly recorded a private sexual encounter between him and another male, only to then post it to YouTube.

In the Phoebe Prince case, the 15-year-old hanged herself on January 10, 2010, after enduring months of bullying from fellow students. Prince felt that killing herself was the only escape from teen tormentors who attacked her in the hallways and taunted her through texts and public online spaces, like Facebook.

We’re all familiar with tales of social networking sites (SNSs), along with other new media platforms, casting a dark shadow over events leading up to a victim’s suicide. Frequently the issues revolve around private encounters, moments and words that spread like wildfire once they’ve been introduced to the digital stage – often without the target’s consent.

With the 21st century ingenue Cyberbullying playing the lead role in each one of those dramas, we rarely hear examples of how social networking promotes a healthy mental state and even prevents suicide in some instances.

Although the media continually make the connection, there is no conclusive evidence that cyberbullying causes suicide.

First, we do youth a disservice by perpetually drawing a straight line between the two concepts of online harassment and self-murder. Continuing to make that association falsely communicates the message that there is no alternative escape from cyberbullying other than ending one’s life, which can result in children making that fatal decision.

Second, adults need to remember that youth connect emotionally and define relationships through their digital devices and Web platforms. They acutely feel both rejection and connection via digital media.

According to a recent International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) study, “students around the world reported that being tethered to digital technology 24-7 is not just a habit, it is essential to the way they construct and manage their friendships and social lives.”

Finally, it’s crucial that we understand both the positive and negative sides of social media, thereby putting cyberbullying into context and appreciating its place amidst all the benefits and opportunities that arise from digital connections.

To further the point, a growing body of research from the Australia-based Co-operative Research Centre for Young People, Technology and Wellbeing (YAW-CRC) supports the idea that SNSs have a much more positive effect on relationships and mental well-being than most of us may be aware.

According to the YAW-CRC’s The Benefit of Social Networking Services report:

“There is a demonstrated positive relationship between young people’s use of social networking services and self-esteem. … It is also argued that a sense of community and belonging has the potential to promote young people’s resilience, giving them the ability to successfully adapt to change and stressful events. … Overall, it appears that the social connections developed and fostered through SNS play an important role in promoting young people’s well-being.

Although cyberbullying represents the seamier side of social networking, it’s greatly outweighed by the support systems that youth develop online.

Too frequently it’s said that friendships in virtual communities do not carry the same lasting loyalty and profound connectivity that real-world relationships hold. Statements like those diminish the value that young ones place on their online relationships and in the end miss the importance of social networking in fostering a sense of self-worth and belonging on this Earth.

Things to Remember

Marginalized children and teens need to hear from trusted sources that their lives are not over if they experience digital persecution from peers. And parents, mentors and teachers should refer to resources (e.g., the Cyberbullying Research Center) to better understand social media’s place in self-esteem development.

If you are concerned for yourself or a child who is being harassed online, intervention programs make all of the difference. For more information, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) What a Difference a Friend Makes website.

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