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Social Pressure and Bullying:

Durango, Colorado, USA – Mountain Middle School

Rosemary Smith, author

“It was already a mean enough time going through middle and high school, back in the day, now throw gasoline on the fire, and throw a phone in there. The bullying doesn’t stop when the bell rings,” says Shane Voss, Principal – Mountain Middle School.

“Kids don’t have the ability to escape from that… they’re always connected,” intones Joanna Michel, parent.

Voss further sites, “Kids are saying things they’d never say face-to-face.  Things like ‘Go kill yourself.  Nobody likes you. You should just go die.’  We’ve had a number of young people commit suicide here in Durango.  It’s happened way too many times.”

We’re all sensitive beings.  Decades ago, if another person said something rude to us, our body language and facial expressions would let them know they made a social faux pas.  Most people do not intentionally wish to hurt others because of this secondary trauma or empathy.  Seeing others in pain, causes pain in ourselves.  It is this “empathy gene” that allows us as humans to trust one another and help one another.  It enables progress by us resolving our differences – enabling us to work together toward greater good.  According to the CDC’s research linking the relationship between bullying and suicide, “Even youth who have observed but not participated in bullying behavior report significantly more feelings of helplessness and less sense of connectedness and support from responsible adults (parents/schools) than youth who had not witnessed bullying behavior.”

With the advent of social media and texting, the filter we used to employ in face-to-face conversations is missing.  We now have technology at our fingertips that allows us to say what is immediately on our mind. Once off our chest, we simply disregard the people who it affects with a swipe.  That crucial moment between stimulus and response is missing. That used to be the moment we took to pause, reflect, think… and then respond in a thoughtful, intelligent manner.  That tiny missing millisecond pause adds to the polarization of friends, families, communities… and countries.  It is making us more callous and unsympathetic. 

Is it a coincidence the number of youth suicides has climbed with the advent of social media?  “Since the late 2000s, the mental health of teens and young adults in the U.S. has declined dramatically.”  That’s the broad conclusion of a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.  

“What’s causing today’s young people so much anguish?  This is a tough question to answer because we can’t prove for sure what the causes are,” says San Diego State psychologist, Jean Twenge.  “But there was one change that impacted the lives of young people more than older people, and that was the growth of smartphones and digital media like social media, texting, and gaming.”

One of the first social media platforms, MySpace, was created in the 1990’s.  While social platforms like MySpace and Facebook were intended and do contribute positively to connecting people, friends, and groups, between 2009 and 2017, rates of depression among 14–17-year-olds increased more than 60% according to the NIMH. In 2017, the latest year federal data is available, more than one in eight Americans aged 12-25 experienced a major depressive episode.  We cannot ignore the data leading to the conclusion that overexposure to media is contributing to mental well-being.

On any given day, psychologists rate our headspace on a scale between one and ten.  Which side of the bed we rolled out of (or if we slept in a warm bed, had access to nutritious meals, loving family members, and exercise) determines whether we start the day at a one – or a 10 – near crisis mode. What we are exposed to on a given day, can help keep our well-being in the lower range, or escalate our anxieties and depression. 

The good news?  The same technology that is causing these issues might just have a hand in fixing them.  While most states struggle to ramp us crisis hotlines, licensed counselors, and behavioral health facilities, insurance, and healthcare agencies are creating online mental health therapy platforms, like Thrive, Better Health, and TalkSpace.  These reduce the stigma of people asking for mental help, because they can take part in the privacy of their own phones, laptops, tablets – and at any time of day. We look forward to the day when physical exams include head checks for all people – not just those in the suburbs with good insurance plans… because there is no “zero” on the mental health scale. 

Are we becoming a “nation of wimps” as Haara Estroff Marano of Psychology Today believes?  Or, are we becoming more aware?

“When I grew up, bullying was considered a natural part of boyhood. It would have strained belief to think that someday the president of the United States would deliver a speech about its evils, as Barack Obama did in 2011. As we care about more of humanity, we’re apt to mistake the harms around us for signs of how low the world has sunk rather than how high our standards have risen.”  – Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now

One of the amazing things about humankind is how we can use our imaginations to create something unique and new.  That’s part of progress. We’ve seen how new things sometimes bring new problems.  But if we unite to solve them, while integrating those new things into life, humankind is left better, more resilient, and able to enjoy a better standard of living, health, and happiness.

Temple University’s Laurence Steinberg believes “…there are some stressors inherent in social media use, but there’s other stressors as well.”  Steinberg mentions increased competition to get into college and “hovering parents” as potential factors.  Which leads us to our next story, “Helicopter Parenting.”