How to Save your Kid
Kids are dying.
They are killing themselves at near-historic rates.
Any illness, injury, or death is so much worse when it happens to a child. A kid’s death by suicide exceeds our limits of sadness, anger, confusion, and disgust. Each one threatens to consume us with guilt and frustration, forcing us to reach for something—anything—that will save their lives. All too often, we latch onto ineffective solutions.
Here is a brutal truth: we will never know what causessuicide. We will not do experiments in which we try to make people die. All we can do is look at things that happen close together in time. What was going on in that child’s life when he or she decided to end it? What was going on in the world when suicide rates started to trend upward?
When I was a kid, they blamed Dungeons & Dragons.
A 60 Minutes story in 1985 blamed several murders and suicides on the popular role-playing game. Unable to resist the earnest reportage of Ed Bradley, parents everywhere—including the mother of one of my best friends—wrestled the evil tomes and strange 4-, 6-, 8-, 10-, 12- and 20-sided dice away from young dungeon masters everywhere.
More recently, we blame smartphones and 13 Reasons Why.
Huge surveys show that all manner of disaster from depression to suicide started to increase around the same time as kids started getting smartphones. One recent study shows how kids’ suicide rates increased in the months following the release of 13 Reasons Why —a Netflix series in which the main character kills herself.
These are all attractive targets mostly because adults do not understand them and, therefore, fear them. What the Hell is a vorpal sword? How can I possibly protect my kid when my four-year-old is better at taking pictures with my phone than I am? And who the Hell is Hannah Baker? We must restrict access to these subversive influences immediately! Science and our duty demand it!
Well, the science isn’t as clear as you’ve been led to believe.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Association of Suicidology dispelled any notion of a link between Dungeons & Dragonsand suicide.
Other surveys of teens show that smartphones and social media are ways to form meaningful connections and to experience diversity. More importantly, they are ways that teens seek help in troubled times.
One less widely covered study of the association between 13 Reasons Why and suicide suggests that increases in suicidal thoughts happen only if people stop watching it partway through. What’s more, watching the whole second season may improve mental health even in high-risk people.
Though the science is sketchy, our duty remains. How are we to keep our kids from killing themselves in the presence of the insurmountable power of Netflix and YouTube and Snapchat? It isn’t something that any of us can do alone. Kids have almost constant connection to one another. If we’re going to help them, we need that kind of power. Our alliance will be different, though. Who among us has time to be constantly glued to a screen?
We don’t need constant contact. All we need is a common course of action. Here’s a start.
First, we must stop talking about things we don’t understand. To be credible sources, we should know how to snap, what a streak is, or what it means to throw shade at someone. We should watch any show on which we offer commentary. Be careful. Knowing the words kids use and being able to use them are not the same thing. The only thing that will damage your credibility more than not knowing what you’re talking about is trying to use jargon with which you’re unfamiliar. Don’t be that guy.
Once we understand things that are valuable to our kids, we must be careful not to be dismissive. We tend to forget what it was like to be young, to forget how soul-crushing even the smallest thing was at the time. While our power comes from our perspective on the small stuff, the only way to help our kids is to be able to understand theirs. If you belittle something your kid finds meaningful, he or she will get upset and the connection will be lost, kind of like all those times I threw away my daughter’s favorite thing ever. She swore to never speak to me again and I had to spend valuable time (sometimes cash, too) convincing her I still loved her.
Finally, we can wield the incredible power of attention. Who do you think is behind the internet axis of evil? Savvy adults who know how to get kids’ attention. Once we know how our kids’ toys work and which ones are their favorites, we can get down and play with them. We mustplay with our kids, understanding that play becomes less about toys and more about relationships. Be the parent who watches 13 Reasons Whywith their daughter. Be the adult who mentors kids who are interested in your profession. Coach a team. Have the house that is safe and inviting for all the kids in the neighborhood, even those who want to play Dungeons & Dragons.
Do smartphones and shows like 13 Reasons Why hurt kids? Maybe. But nothing stands a chance against a knowledgeable, available, and engaged adult.