DENVER, Colorado – Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver said the growing problem of teen suicide is one that should be met with prayer and efforts to help young people develop healthy use of social media.
“Suicide by teens in Colorado is tragically on the rise,” Aquila said in an Oct. 24 column for the Denver Catholic.
“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,” he noted, pointing to several local middle school and high school students who committed suicide at the beginning of this school year.
As the community struggles to make sense of these increasing tragedies, it is important to address the role of social media and its effect on teens’ sense of self-worth and struggle with suicidal thoughts, he said.
While the teenage years have “always been a time of uncertainty, as physiological and emotional development takes place,” the archbishop said, the pervasive influence of social media in today’s world adds a new dimension to adolescence in the 21st century.
“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,” the archbishop said.
With studies showing that 3 in 4 teens use Snapchat and Instagram daily, these bullies have access to “a virtual megaphone,” around-the-clock availability, and a greater level of anonymity than in previous generations, he said.
“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,” the archbishop continued. “This allows them to get attention from their friends while also airing their internal feelings.”
The problem is not just local. Data from recent government surveys indicate a huge spike in rates of adolescent depression and related mental health issues. And a new study in the journal Clinical Psychological Science shows a correlation between social media use and mental health problems among teenagers.
To counter this alarming trend, Aquila asked the faithful of the archdiocese to pray for “those who are despairing and are searching for their true identity.
“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,” he said.
The archbishop also pointed to the words of Pope Francis in his 2014 message for World Communications Day: “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.”
Aquila mentioned some signs of hope in the culture, particularly an “Offline October” petition in which 1,600 students pledged to delete their social media apps for a month, with the hope that “morale and confidence will be boosted” by doing so.
Efforts such as the Offline October pledge can help today’s young people remember that their identity is not rooted in online interactions, the archbishop said.
“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,” he stressed.