Earlier this week, I received an email from an older family member expressing horror at the case of a 14-year-old boy in Mumbai who committed suicide by jumping from the seventh floor of an Andheri building on 30 July. The alleged reason, as stated in most mainstream media coverage of the incident, is that he was playing the "Blue Whale Challenge" game, and this was his final "task". This same family member attributed his death to the "growing impact of social media on youth's mental health and well-being."
By means of a background, the Blue Whale Challenge is a 50-day long Internet "game", said to have originated in Russia in 2013. Apparently, the game is being played in several countries, and has reportedly taken the lives of hundreds of people worldwide. It consists of a series of tasks assigned by the administrators, which include carving and cutting your self, watching psychedelic and scary videos late at night, visiting the roofs of high buildings, all culminating in the suicide of the participant on the last day by jumping from a tall building. The case of the 14-year-old boy in Mumbai was reported as the first instance of a Blue Whale death in India. Police are however yet to find evidence that the boy actually played the game.
This is an on-going global debate regarding social media as an instigator of [mental health] problems or a part of the solution to them.
However, the bigger problem is that mainstream media has diverted attention to the use of "social media" (or the Blue Whale game) as being the cause of this and countless other suicides and mental health problems for young people. Is this really accurate? I would argue that this isn't the case. These suicides instead point to the ever-growing mental health crisis we find ourselves in today.
In India, suicide and self-harm are presently the leading cause of death among young people. Globally, 20% of the world's youth in the 15-24 years age group are presently experiencing a mental health condition, and of these, 80% do not receive care. The silence and stigma around mental health and the lack of spaces for dialogue also exacerbate young people's experiences with mental health challenges.
Now, the question on the role of social networking and its potential to impact mental health is very relevant here. What we do know is that social media use is far more widespread and prevalent among young people than older generations, but what we are not sure of is whether the same platforms that are meant to offer spaces for self-expression, community-building and relationship-forging may actually be fuelling a mental health crisis. This is an on-going global debate regarding social media as an instigator of these problems or a part of the solution to them. It is interesting to mention here that two months ago popular social media platform Instagram was rated as the "worst for young mental health" by a UK poll of 1479 young people. While international reporting on this was rampant, and the poll may well be indicative of how some young people feel, much more evidence is needed. Much of the research on social media usage available is conflicting and confusing.
The fact is that social media platforms are today starting to take "measures" for the safety and protection of users. Efforts by social networking platforms like Facebook and Instagram through active updating of algorithms to find dangerous trends, and through directing users found to be at risk of self-harm or suicide to portals offering support are an encouraging development. But, there is still an extremely long way to go considering the millions of young people using these platforms as integral parts of their lives and as avenues to seek support. The truth is that not everyone's experience of social media will be the same and we still don't know enough about how these different platforms work, or how constantly changing technology affects our mental health.
It is critical to constantly engage with today's young people—beyond a sympathetic emoji on someone's newsfeed. We need to have face-to-face conversations and take action in our schools, workplaces and homes.
The Status of Mind report has aptly recommended important safeguards that we can push for, to demand more responsibility and accountability from social networking platforms. The report states:
"[T]here are also risks, risks which if not addressed and countered, can and have already opened the door for social media to cause significant problems for young people's mental health and wellbeing. Being a teenager is hard enough, but the pressures faced by young people online are arguably unique to this digital generation. It is vitally important that we put safeguards in place."
There are now many emerging and encouraging channels like Artidote, Talk Life, The Mighty, It's OK To Talk and others that present information, stories and safe spaces online to understand mental health better, to talk about it, and seek support.
Today's teenagers live in a complex, fast paced and increasingly virtual world, which brings a unique set of incomprehensible challenges for preceding generations. This sudden digital leap has left a dissonance we are struggling to cope with. It is therefore critical to constantly engage with today's young people—beyond a sympathetic emoji on someone's newsfeed. We need to have face-to-face conversations and take action in our schools, workplaces and homes. These will help us fight the stigma and offer support to individuals in a timely and preventive manner. If we are to learn from the sad case of the 14-year-old boy, we know that it is imperative, now more than ever, to act before it's too late.
Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author.