The suicide of 12 year old Rebecca Sedwick last month sent shock waves around the nation. We continue to be surprised when we let children have unfettered access to technology, which greatly increases narcissism, decreases social skills, self-esteem and empathy; and they turn into bullies who cause the suicide of other children. However, we should not be shocked, or even surprised. We’ve allowed a culture of cyber bullying to proliferate and disavowed any suggestion that technology is partially to blame. Now we are suffering the consequences of our inaction. The suicide of Rebecca Sedwick was totally preventable, and the parents of the cyber bully perpetrators are also to blame for allowing their children to act like uncaged animals, who, authorities report, have no remorse for their crimes. But it’s not just the parents who are to blame; it’s also our society, which has set a tone of the acceptability of children having unchained access to the internet, 24/7 engagement with social media, and a disconnection from their own families.
Engagement with social media causes a lack of self-esteem and at the same time increases narcissistic behavior. This has been proven in numerous studies, and the supporting research piles up almost daily. One example is a study published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, entitled Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults. In that study, the authors found that Facebook use was linked with a decline in mood, and that the decline grew worse the more someone used Facebook. They explain:
Facebook use influences the two components of subjective well-being: how people feel moment-to-moment and how satisfied they are with their lives. Our results indicate that Facebook use predicts negative shifts on both of these variables over time. The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them; the more they used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time.
Another example of the growing body of research that supports this idea is a study out of the University of Hawaii, which found that Facebook use damages interpersonal relationships. The authors also found that that the damage grew worse the more someone used Facebook. A third example is a study out of the University of Michigan, which found that Facebook clearly causes an increase in depression. Again, the study found that the more someone used Facebook, the more depressed they became. Using social media also increases narcissism. A recent study found that using both Facebook and Twitter was linked to an increased in narcissistic behavior.
High narcissism, decreased feelings of wellbeing, especially shame, and most importantly, a lack of empathy have been proven to be present among bullies. When it comes to bullying, the most significant among these qualities, arguably, is a lack of empathy for others. A recent widespread study found that college students today are a whopping 40% less empathetic than their counterparts 30 years ago and that empathy has decreased most sharply since 2010. The study researchers said they believe that social media is a factor, along with violent video games, saying:
The increase in exposure to media during this time period could be one factor. Compared to 30 years ago, the average American now is exposed to three times as much nonwork-related information. In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games, and a growing body of research, including work done by my colleagues at Michigan, is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others. The ease of having ‘friends’ online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to others’ problems, a behavior that could carry over offline. College students today may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don’t have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited.
The studies linking social and other media exposure to a lack of empathy, an increase in narcissism, a reduced feeling of well-being and an increase in depression could fill an entire book, and yet, many people not only choose to not accept these findings, but the mere mention of the study results incites fury in many. Any hint that technology, gadget or social media usage should be limited invites a host of abusive language, ad hominem attacks and, yes, bullying from people who cannot, or will not, consider placing boundaries on the time they spend engaging in such media.
There are some parents, too, who bristle at the idea of limiting their children’s exposure to this media because having to do so would mean dealing with the temper tantrums of their technology-addicted children. In the case of Rebecca Sedwick and her tragic suicide, it seems apparent that her bullies had little to no parental guidance and certainly no limitation on or even basic monitoring of their social media usage. In fact, one of the little demon brats wrote on Facebook “I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself” as if boasting about an accomplishment rather than indicating any shame at a murderous behavior. Obviously, no parent was paying attention here at all.
Along with a decrease in well-being and an increase in depression, suicide rates overall have seen an enormous upswing in the last ten years. The New York Times reports that experts have linked the rise in suicides to a drastic increase in the incidence of cyber bullying.
Schools can implement as many anti-bullying programs as they want, but as long as we let children have totally unrestricted access to the internet and social media, nothing will change, because the effects of social media and the addictive, numbing effect of our gadgets supersede real-life interactions.
Psychologist Sherry Turkle says today’s kids are unable to pay attention to real-life conversations, and she says texting and other forms of social media are causal in this problem. She says the short, limited social media interactions are ruining human connections. “The complexity and messiness of human communication gets shortchanged” when people are communicating via text or online she says. “Those things are what lead to better relationships.” She seems to indicate that having a screen in between two people degrades the quality of the communication, saying “A full-scale apology means I know I’ve hurt you, I get to see that in your eyes. You get to see that I’m uncomfortable, and with that, the compassion response kicks in. There are many steps and they’re all bypassed when we text.” Of course, this also applies to any interaction that removes eye and voice contact entirely. Turkle also says that today’s kids are scared of basic human conversation. “I talk to kids and they describe their fear of conversation,” she says. “An 18-year-old I interviewed recently said, ‘Someday, but certainly not now, I want to learn to have a conversation.’”
We’ve built a generation of kids who cannot have a human conversation and some of whom have very little empathy. Because they are unable to connect fully with another human being due to the fact that they always have a screen in between them and the other person, they bully each other, literally, to death.
That is what happened in the case of Rebecca Sedwick. She was bullied into suicide; a suicide that was entirely preventable had the parents of the accused simply placed reasonable limits on social media and technology use and monitored what their children were doing. In other words: parenting.
It’s time to wake up to the realities of what screens are doing to our children. Otherwise, we will have a lot more Rebecca Sedwicks to look forward to.
An Editorial By: Rebecca Savastio