Decoding social media and teen suicide

Just a few weeks ago I learned with great sadness that a middle school and high school student in Littleton took their lives within two days of each other, and almost a week later a 15-year-old girl in Thornton did the same. These kinds of heart-wrenching deaths move us to search for answers, and ultimately cause us to turn to Christ, who knows the depths and trials of our hearts.

Suicide by teens in Colorado is tragically on the rise. In 2014 there were 50 students who took their own life, but in 2015 the toll rose to 72 and remained elevated with 68 in 2016. The question that continues to churn in the minds of anguished friends, teachers and family members is: Why?

There are several theories about the reasons why we are seeing this troubling spike in teen suicide, and I will leave the interpretation of those factors to psychiatrists and psychologists. But as the spiritual shepherd of the Archdiocese of Denver, I would be remiss if I didn’t address this growing problem in some way.

One theme that I see running through the stories of teens who struggle with suicidal thoughts is the pervasive influence of social media on their identity and sense of self-worth. The teenage years have always been a time of uncertainty, as physiological and emotional development takes place.

But in 2017 many teens live in a world that is heavily influenced by the digital realm. The latest statistics show that between 76 and 78 percent of teens use the two most popular social media apps, Snapchat and Instagram, on at least a daily basis.

The pressures being placed on young people through social media are not helping slow the suicide epidemic, in fact, they seem to be fueling it.

Bullying has always existed, and it always attacks the basic dignity of another human being through demeaning the person. But when we crossed the threshold in 2012 of more than 50 percent of Americans owning a smartphone, bullies gained access to their peers on a scale never seen before. Not only did fallen human nature obtain a virtual megaphone it could use 24/7, but the anonymity offered by some apps removed the accountability provided by platforms that require users to identify themselves.

The introduction of these apps has also led to a new phenomenon in which about six percent of teens resort to “digital self-harm” by posting anonymous hateful messages about themselves for their friends to see. This allows them to get attention from their friends while also airing their internal feelings.

Tragedies have a way of crystalizing the truth and giving perspective. In the wake of the two deaths in Littleton, a group of students has organized to promote an initiative called Offline October, which asks students to delete their social media apps for the month. “We believe,” the students state, “that social media plays a negative role in teenagers lives and is a factor [in] depression and suicide. By removing social media for one month, morale and confidence will be boosted.” So far, they have gotten over 1,600 students to take the pledge from 26 states.

In his 2014 message for World Communications Day, Pope Francis calls attention to the lack of charity that lies at the root of social media misuse. He writes: “It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply ‘connected;’ connections need to grow into true encounters. We cannot live apart, closed in on ourselves. We need to love and to be loved. We need tenderness.”

The danger the Holy Father is highlighting is that we become convinced that our identity is found in how our peers and even strangers speak about us online. When a person’s relationships are so dependent upon online interactions and social standing in an anonymous environment, then one becomes an easy target for manipulation and lies.

As Catholics, we need to be people who bring our experience of encountering Jesus’ love in prayer, the sacraments, and authentic community with others to those who are awash in the digital realm.

The most important thing that we can do for those who are consumed with their online existence is to persistently, lovingly show them that they are a son or daughter of God the Father, and that this is what matters most. Status updates, likes, Snapchat streaks and Instagram posts will always disappear, but the eternal identity of each person and the love and tenderness that the Father shows them through you will not fade away.

I urge all people of the archdiocese to join me in praying for those who are despairing and are searching for their true identity. May the words of Jesus to the disciples about knowing and experiencing the truth become their reality. “But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear” (Mt. 13:16).

COMING UP: Cyber bullying: Protect your kids

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Cyber bullying: Protect your kids

Catholic schools take proactive measures against cyberbullying

Bullying can take many forms, but in this cyber era, the most prevalent kind of bullying often goes unseen, yet the consequences are anything but.

Cyber bullying is a very real and serious issue kids face every day. In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that 4-in-10 internet users have been victims of online harassment, and 73 percent of internet users said they had witnessed online harassment in some way.

Of course, the majority of cyber bullying happens on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the use of which has become standard fare for the primary targets of cyber bullying. Add to this the countless stories of cyber bullying victims who have attempted or committed suicide, and suddenly the problem seems much bigger.

“I am afraid that [cyber bullying] is probably the most pervasive form of bullying children deal with today,” said Mary Cohen, Assistant Superintendent of Denver Catholic schools. “It impacts our schools in that it breaks down the Christ-centered community we are attempting to build with our students and their families. Social media allows bullies a much greater audience and the impact of this type of bullying is far reaching. I cannot imagine the pain a child must feel when they have become the target of a social media campaign that belittles them on such a large scale.”

I am afraid that [cyber bullying] is probably the most pervasive form of bullying children deal with today. It impacts our schools in that it breaks down the Christ-centered community we are attempting to build with our students and their families.”

– Mary Cohen, Assistant Superintendent of Denver Catholic Schools

Archdiocesan schools are taking proactive measures in the fight against cyber bullying. Last year, several schools piloted an internet monitoring program called Safe Students Online (SSO) that enables parents to play more active roles in their children’s social media use. Tim Polizzi is the Vice President of SSO, and he said the goal of the program is ultimately to keep kids safe online and promote an open dialogue between kids and parents.

“The challenge right now is kids are [technologically] savvy and parents are at somewhat of a disadvantage and may be intimidated,” Polizzi said. “There’s stuff going on that they would like to know, but they’re not sure how. Our approach is really about giving parents better awareness so that they can be parents.”

Polizzi started Safe Students Online out of a desire to provide a different sort of solution for internet monitoring. He said he noticed that many of the current solutions are either very heavy-handed and monitor every little thing, or they invade the child’s privacy by having full access to their accounts, passwords and all. SSO does neither of these. Parents configure the program via the web and work with their children to install it.

“The challenge right now is kids are [technologically] savvy and parents are at somewhat of a disadvantage and may be intimidated[…]It’s more than just a hobby for kids; it’s how they live their life. [Parents] need to be involved.”

– Tim Polizzi, Vice President of Safe Students Online

“It’s definitely not something you do behind your kid’s back or some way spy on them,” Polizzi said. “Part of the reason we think the kid can buy into it is because unlike a lot of other programs out there, it’s not showing the parent 100 percent of what happens online.”

SSO currently is able to monitor the most popular social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+. Parents send an authorization request to their child’s social media account, and the child gives the app permission to monitor it. Parents never receive their child’s passwords. Instead, using a filtering system, SSO monitors keywords, language and topics, and alerts parents via email if it detects problematic or questionable behavior.

Polizzi said that privacy is an important component of the program and clarified that even though the program is paid for and distributed by the school, school administrators never actually receive any alerts.

“The school does not come between the parent and the child, and that’s a very important distinction. [This] is the parent’s responsibility,” he said. “Schools want to get on board now and be proactive. As with a lot of things, parents look to the school for guidance, and if you can provide a tool that makes this difficult part of parenting a little easier, I think it’s worth it.”

“I think it is important for…Catholic educators to partner with our students’ families to help kids realize that with the privilege of technology use also comes great responsibility.”

– Detty Hensen, Principal of Christ the King Catholic School

Christ the King School in Denver is one of the schools that participated in the pilot program for SSO last year. Detty Hensen, principal of Christ the King, saw employing the services of SSO as a smart proactive move. Hansen offered the program to the parents of the school’s 5th through 8th graders, and saw a participation of around 45 percent. She said she wants to move forward and implement it more fully for the next school year.

“With all the negative influences our children are exposed to regarding the use of internet technology and social media, I jumped at the chance to pilot this program,” Hensen said. “I think it is important for…Catholic educators to partner with our students’ families to help kids realize that with the privilege of technology use also comes great responsibility.”

Polizzi is hopeful that more schools and parents will jump on board with SSO to address this pressing issue. By having a social media account of any kind, kids put themselves at risk for cyber bullying without even realizing it, and Polizzi said it is essential for parents to be curious about what their child is doing.

“I’m trying to make this technology thing not so intimidating that parents can’t be parents and kids can’t be kids,” he said. “It’s more than just a hobby for kids; it’s how they live their life. You need to be involved.”

To learn more about Safe Students Online and internet safety and responsibilty, visit


Tips for safe social media use
  • Keep the conversation open.
  • Stay up to date with current social media platforms and learn how to use them properly.
  • Be mindful of the images you post and the things you say.
  • Use privacy settings to control which people see your social media accounts.
  • Don’t share personal information, such as home addresses or phone numbers.