Internet a 'Lord of the Flies': Teen Suicide Rise Started After Instagram, Snapchat began

By Orange County Register

March 21, 2018

Third of three parts. Part 1 and Part 2

A counselor at JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano faces a gathering of somber students and asks if they knew any of the teens who recently took their lives.

A half-dozen hands immediately rise. After a pause, more hands poke up.

“I knew Kyle,” one boy quietly volunteers. “He always seemed super happy. I never would have guessed.”

In new series of sessions about suicide at JSerra — as well as at many other schools — little by little kids open up.

One student talks about 13-year-old Emma Pangelinan who lived in Mission Viejo. Another teen says he knew Patrick Turner, a 16-year-old who lived in Corona del Mar. A girl mentions two girls in a nearby town. A boy asks about another boy who died.

It used to be that kids in high school knew one, maybe two kids who committed suicide. Back then, there wasn’t the reach of social media and methods to kill yourself weren’t just a Google search away.

With the Internet as well as Instagram and Snapchat “likes” creating round-the-clock races for online popularity — who sleeps anymore? — high school today is not your mother’s high school.

It’s not even the high school that millennials experienced.

Kids are cutting and killing themselves in increasing numbers and experts are only beginning to understand why — and more importantly how to stem the tide of tragedy.

Several weeks ago, the Orange County chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics went so far as to make a public statement about what experts call a suicide cluster.

In a world where going public about teen suicide once was verboten, the academy’s statement may seem reckless. But that was the 20th century when relatively few kids heard about a teenager’s suicide.

In the digital age, friendships cross school boundaries and teens know far more than even the saviest parents realize.

Courageous parents who have lost children to suicide, therapists, even news information companies are lifting the veil in an effort to build awareness and reduce increasing teen suicide rates.

“The face of suicide is changing,” the pediatrics chapter warns. “The rate of suicide is increasing in Orange County and all teenagers are at risk, including our high achieving students, athletes, and artists.”

This month, three hospitals in Orange County launched after-school ASPIRE programs to help teens and parents cope and communicate. Like JSerra, other middle and high schools are revamping and beefing up suicide counseling programs.

These programs are less about old-school depression and addiction than they are about unrealistic Internet-induced expectations that perfection is actually attainable.

“Perfectionism among performance driven teens in academics, the arts, and athletics,” the pediatrics academy declares, “is a critical factor to identifying and intervening with the new face of suicide.

“Research confirms that current generations of young adults put more pressure on themselves than generations before them. This self-imposed pressure to be perfect is a known risk factor.”

Understand, getting into college doesn’t start with the PSAT as it once did. Pressure for getting into college starts as early as eighth grade, a time when the biggest worry used to be ninth grade.

Being a popular jock doesn’t help. Successful student-athletes such as Emma, a softball phenom, commit suicide. Patrick Turner, a sophomore, played both baseball and football.

‘Best’ vs. ‘right’

Experts point out the uptick in teen suicide started a few years after the launch of Instagram and Snapchat. They blame battles for digital “likes” and Internet-induced stress over success on the field as well as in the classroom.

In 2014, Madison Holleran, a University of Pennsylvania freshman track star took her life. Around that time, a cluster of teens committed suicide in Palo Alto. In January, Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski took his life.

“We handed the most powerful tool known to man and gave it to children for them to play with and explore,” says Don Grant, chairman of the American Psychological Association Device Management Committee. “Would you hand kids power tools and not expect something to happen?”

Grant, a Los Angeles-based psychologist, calls the Internet a “digital ‘Lord of the Flies.’” He adds, “There’s always going to be a Ralph, there’s always going to be a Piggy,” but the Internet amplifies and expands social hierarchies far beyond anything previous generations have faced.

For example, a girl swipes her smartphone and sees other girls she knows from school at the beach. How do you think she feels?

“Kids are sitting home alone, disenfranchised and disconnected,” Grant says. “It’s very dark the way social currency is wielded. They watch the Kardashians and don’t know how to respond.”

Pressure to get into college can be even worse.

“Every other kid in this population is so scared,” Grant explains. “There’s no summer vacations. No down time.”

Parents and schools need to blow up the paradigm that a child has to get into the best college, the psychologist says. “Expose the truth about these myths.”

Other experts agree. The American Academy of Pediatrics cautions, “An environment where success is so highly valued fuels this pressure on our teens.

“Intolerance for mistakes and weakness make high-achieving (students) in academics, athletics, or the arts particularly vulnerable to social isolation when their self-imposed perfectionist standards are not met.”

Instead of getting into the best school, the new concept is aiming for the right school.

School counselors and psychologists suggest parents and counselors guide students to a college that fits the student — or toward a vocation that fits.

’13 Reasons Why’ binging

Standing before a screen listing depressive symptoms such as emptiness, hopelessness and worthlessness, JSerra counselor and psychologist Courtney Harkins reminds students that they can make a difference in others’ lives.

Being kind is high on the list. So is having a positive outlook.

Still, Harkins is careful to make clear it’s not the students’ responsibility to handle a potential suicide.

“You might be the rock,” Harkins cautions, “but it’s not your burden to hold. Even if you’ve promised to not tell anyone, you have to reach out. Tell school experts.”

Unfortunately, Harkins and other psychologists must swim against a tide of popular movies and TV series.

The hugely popular Netflix teen suicide series “13 Reasons Why” depicts counselors and administrators covering up for their school and putting the priority on their own careers after a student kills herself.

For this series of columns, I watched nine of the 13 episodes. Then, I had to walk away from the drama because it was so unrealistic, troubling and depressing.

While some experts applaud the series for sparking discussions about what some wrongly consider a taboo topic, most condemn “13 Reasons Why” for being sensational.

The National Association of School Psychologists phrases it delicately, warning that the Netflix series “powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies.”

Some tips for tilting students away from suicide are startlingly simple.

At the JSerra session, visiting therapist Megan Ure notes there are different types of mindsets.

One is the depressed brain saying, “I can’t do it.”

The other mindset is the healthy brain saying, “I’m going to try.”

It may sound dumb and it’s not easy, but helping someone realize that they are trapped in a victim mentality can go a long way.

A new conversation

Prerna Rao is clinical manager for the ASPIRE program in Newport Beach and reports her team is seeing an increase in teens hurting themselves. “It’s shocking about what’s happened in such a short time,” she says.

“The biggest thing missing with teens is validation,” Rao offers. “Teens have a lot going on emotionally and hormonally.”

Instead of building self-esteem, the social media plague of staged “happy” photos creates the opposite of validation.

Daniel Patterson has worked in the trenches at public schools, first as a teacher and then as an assistant principal. Now, he is a parenting and teen life coach and reports that the idea of “tiger” parents and teachers is more myth than reality.

Like other experts, he sees the real culprit as social media and notes that because of Instagram and Snapchat, teens compare themselves to others in real time 24 hours a day.

“It’s difficult to wrap your head around,” Patterson says of the damage. “It creates a hidden pressure from underneath that’s hard to articulate for the teenager.

“It takes the old term, ‘Keeping up with the Joneses,’ to a different level.”

To move forward, Patterson calls on adults to collectively work together and fully acknowledge what social media is doing to teenagers. “Stop dancing around trying to diminish the impact of digital communication on these kids.”

Parents need to acquire cutting-edge information on teenage life, and they need to learn the vocabulary of teens so they can communicate. “When teens perceive you don’t know something, they maintain a buffer.”

It’s a buffer we all must break down — parents as well as teens. Moreover, we need to change the conversation.

Sometimes old wisdom is new again. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said, “Perfection is what you are striving for, but perfection is an impossibility.

“Do the best you can under the conditions that exist.”

To view the original Orange County Register article, please click here.

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Part 1: New Pressures for Perfection Contribute to Rise in Teen Suicide

Emma Pangelinan’s room embodies everything that is pure and good about teenagers, yet the quiet in the air is so heavy it nearly brings you to your knees.

Two rows of hard-earned gleaming softball and soccer trophies testify to the past. A blue-and-gold UCLA pennant on the wall promises a wonderful future.

But the athletic, bright, always-helpful 13-year-old who slept in this room, who grew up in this home of faith and family, is gone forever.

After a perfect day on a perfect Sunday blasting softballs, sharing jokes with the girls on her travel team and window shopping with Dad, Emma disappeared on the evening of Jan. 21 and killed herself.

No note, no warning, no “13 Reasons Why” voice tape as portrayed on the recent Netflix suicide series.

Just the stop of a beating heart.

In the following three weeks in Orange County, at least three more teenagers who appeared to excel ended their lives.

How many other teens have taken or tried to take their lives in Southern California in the past few months is unknown. But what is known is that smart, successful, gifted teens are committing suicide in increasing numbers, and if certain things don’t change – and change quickly – many more young lives will be snuffed out.

“We are definitely seeing an increase in self-harm,” reports Dr. Michael Brant-Zawadzki, executive medical director of the Neurosciences Institute at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach. “Negative behaviors have steadily started to increase.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports suicide has become the third-leading cause of death for teens and that more than 4,600 young people – ages 10 to 24 – are lost each year.

Additionally, 157,000 youths between the ages of 10 and 24 are treated at emergency departments for self-inflicted injuries.

For many teens, suicide is no longer only about parents screaming at kids, drug addiction or bullying.

The factors causing some of these suicides as well as thousands of attempts are new, murky and very much 21st century.

They include lives lived in a digital world in which kids are measured by Instagram and Snapchat “likes,” a sense of overwhelming pressure coupled with fear of failure, and the belief that practice – and enough Internet research – can make you perfect.

But, of course, perfection is unattainable and failure is guaranteed.

“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades,” writes Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of “Generation Me.”

“The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health,” Twenge concludes. “These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household.”

Technology’s seismic shift

A hand-carved cross about 18 inches tall hangs above the mantle in Liza and Louie Pangelinan’s home in Mission Viejo. Below, two votive candles flicker. A rosary is draped over a small statue of Jesus Christ, hands low and open. In the center, there is a photo of Emma. She is smiling and appears to lean forward, eager for her next adventure.

The candles and the photo are new. The hanging cross is not. The rosary is the same rosary that parents and extended relatives from Corona held the night that Emma’s body was discovered.

But the seventh grader’s essence is best captured in a photo that is nearly hidden. It shows Emma from the back when she was just 8 years old. Already a budding athlete, her batting helmet is cocked just so and she grasps the meat of the bat with one hand, barrel up and behind her.

Her stride exudes confidence, strength and grace – the very same characteristics Emma exuded the day she killed herself.

Emma’s father, Louie Pangelinan, played high school football in Corona, was a volunteer coach and allows that his daughter “made plays you don’t see at the high school level, and she made them look easy.”

It’s a statement not of pride but of fact, and is difficult for Pangelinan to volunteer. Exceptionally quiet and humble by nature, the longshoreman paraphrases football great Walter Payton, “When you’re good at something, you tell everyone. When you’re great at something, they tell you.”

Kids, coaches, even parents told Emma she was great – because, well, she was.

At just about everything.

Emma earned straight As, excelled at art, whisked from kid softball to club teams and then to travel teams. She played the tough job of catcher; heck, she played any position needed.

But 2016 was a very tough year. One of the girls in the league was responsible for her own death.

The coaches, however, understood the trauma and called in Casey Cooper, sports psychologist. Cooper addressed the team as a whole and also took on individuals. Emma was one.

Exceptionally shy, Emma came out of her shell under Cooper. Soon, she made friends more easily.

After a series of sessions, the therapy ended. There was no indication of depression. Just the opposite.

Recalling the day she got a text stating Emma had disappeared, the therapist echoes Emma’s parents, “There were no red flags.”

Still, like other experts on teenage turmoil, Cooper sees red flags across the nation.

The speed of technology, they agree, is moving faster than the ability of young people to process the effects.

Consider that smartphones arrived in 2007. Instagram came online in October 2010, Snapchat a year later.

San Diego State’s Twenge dates the impact: “Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011.”

Millennials grew up with PCs, moved on to laptops, gravitated to tablets and came of age when smartphones hit the market. But their little brothers and sisters practically grew up with smartphones.

The gap between millennials and their iGen siblings may be as little as five years, yet it is as wide as the gap between the World War II generation and baby boomers.

Few will admit it – many don’t even know it – but parents might as well be on Mars when it comes to understanding the new world of their teens.

“These kids are always on display,” Cooper points out. “You’re always being evaluated based on the number of likes and comments.”

Reaching for perfection

In their living room, the Pangelinans offer a gracious platter of chips and fresh-cut veggies. But during a discussion that lasts until sunset, no one touches food.

When your youngest child dies by their own hand, eating is nearly impossible. Living is hard enough.

Liza confesses she loves candy. Yet gift baskets of candy from friends stack up on the dining table untouched. She confesses, “I can’t taste them.”

Mom shakes her head at the memory of hiking with Emma a week before her little girl’s death. Liza was shocked and frightened by the carcass of a decaying deer and Emma, 5-foot-4 and strong, comforted her mother.

How could such a girl take her own life a week later?

Emma not only left her parents in mourning, she left behind an older brother and sister who thought – no, knew – their little sister “was the coolest.”

Still, Cooper and Emma’s parents allow the seventh grader was a perfectionist who could be tough on herself.

“She would talk about an error and we would say, ‘But you made 10 great plays,’” Liza says. “Emma internalized a lot of stuff.”

Emma wasn’t big on social media, Liza says. She adds, however, many teens stage elaborate photos as if to prove they are having fun and post them online in a race for digital popularity. When it’s deemed there’s an insufficient number of “likes,” they take down the photo.

“These kids have a lot more pressure than we ever did growing up,” Liza says. “There’s a lot we can’t relate to.”

After a long moment of silence, Liza allows, “Obviously there was some level of depression. Emma conquered everything except her emotions.

“They were just too overwhelming.”

Dad reflects on all the long car rides he had with his youngest daughter. Driving is difficult, he admits. It won’t be any easier come summer.

In July, Dad and Emma were going to drive to Colorado for a series of softball games. Emma even made a playlist for the trip.

It’s still in her bedroom.

To view the original Orange County Register article, please click here.