Bear with me today. I’ve got something on my mind and on my heart. I’m feeling like I need to talk it through, but I’m not sure where it’s going to go. So, I’m just going to start typing, and we’ll see where the Spirit leads us.
Nancy is my information person. Every day she sends me numerous Tweets and Facebook posts that center on the news and on our culture. She is my “relevance” guru. Early this morning, she sent me a Tweet that I haven’t been able to shake. It listed three stats and one question. The stats were:
- The national suicide rate has increased by 56% in 10 years.
- Among youth ages 10-14, the suicide rate nearly tripled from 2007 to 2017.
- The suicide rate in the U.S. in general has increased 30%.
For the past six months, I’ve been spending time with Ryan Ries, co-founder of the Whosoevers Movement. The Whosoevers are a ministry that reaches out primarily to at-risk youth. Thousands of high school students are finding the Lord every year through their on-campus events, and their various gatherings. Ryan tells me that the numbers of kids who wrestle with suicidal thoughts – even to the point of planning out their own deaths – is staggering. He attributes the source of much of this radical statistical increase to what he calls “noise”. Noise is all the distractions that teens and adults use to withdraw from reality – drugs, alcohol, sex, music, and, probably the biggest culprit of them all, social media.
Most teens live out their lives online. Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter are their escapes from anonymity and irrelevance. Because of the isolating tendencies of the parents of Gen X kids, a latchkey generation was born. Trapped behind locked doors at home after school while the folks were still at work, these teens decided to open a relationship window. That window was the smartphone. From their bedrooms and family rooms and dens, that generation connected with latchkey kids and built cyber-relationships. It was a brilliant, if somewhat artificial, move.
As Gen X grew, Gen Z took over (those currently between 3 and 23 years old). This new generation emulated the social media habits of the previous group and then honed them into a lifestyle. Now, the phone is ever-present. My daughter can be talking to me from her dorm while Snapchatting a friend while still involved in an on-going conversation with her roommates. The multi-tasking conversational skills of this generation are truly amazing.
But there are huge downsides to this vast social web surrounding the previous two generations.
First, few young adults have the wisdom, experience, and self-control to be able to handle expressing themselves on what is a permanent medium. I think back to some of the stupid things that I said as a teen and a young adult. If there had been a forum to post it to the world, I would likely have taken advantage of it. And, in today’s cyber-policing culture, I probably would have already lost my pastoral position due to someone digging four decades back into my stupid posting past. There is no taking back a posted picture or some poorly chosen words. Once it is out there, it will follow a teen and can be brought back against them again and again and again. We’ve seen this in the takedowns of politicians, entertainers, and media folk.
Second, social media is “affirmation” based. Teens judge themselves and others by the number of friends they have. Their affirmation comes from the amount of likes their pictures receive. I would bet that many of you adults who have Facebook suffer from the same “pursuit of the like” pathology. The difference is that most of us are able to put our social media acknowledgments in proper life context. For teens whose self-esteems are based on the need for constant affirmation, when the social media “like” well runs dry or, worse yet, turns on them with cyber-bullying, it can be devastating.
Third, social media is “comparison” based. The ease of posting to Snapchat and Instagram draws teens deep into the lives of their peers and their idols. Each day they’ll get five or ten glimpses into the personal lives of their favorite artist or actor or internet star. This can lead to great discouragement as kids compare the idealized lives of these “blessed” ones with their own broken and dysfunctional homes.
It’s this social media noise combined with all the other distractions – music, video games, and the ones mentioned above – that drown out the opportunity for young adults to stop and think. Added to the noise is the imbalance of constantly shifting cultural norms and causes – climate change and the end of the world, gender fluidity, sexual identity confusion, loss of innocence at an ever-decreasing age, and, most importantly, the slow-moving destruction of the family. Thus, the noise is too loud for people to hear the truth, and the ground is too shaky for them to find a firm footing.
A little while back, I introduced you to Christina Boudreau. In a conversation I had with her, she told me about the abuse she suffered growing up and how that led her to gender confusion, homosexuality, depression, cutting, eating disorders, and, ultimately, attempted suicide. What ultimately changed her was not a boost in her social media likes or a psychologist telling her that she should love herself or her home life stabilizing or her gender confusion getting straightened out or her body-image getting better. What changed Christina was Jesus Christ. In that noiseless moment when it was just her and her Savior, Jesus became her firm footing. He spoke truth to her. He showed her who she was and that it was truly only His opinion of her that mattered. He showed her that she was loved no matter what.
Ultimately, suicide is a spiritual problem. It is not surprising that in the same ten years that the suicide rate increased by 56%, the number of Christians in America dropped by 12%. Christianity in the U.S. is now at the lowest point in its 243-year history. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that there are no chemical factors that can lead to depression. I am not discounting the need for counseling for many. I am saying that any methodology used to address these issues must have Christ as a part. Otherwise, you are just treating symptoms while ignoring the disease.
This is also an encouragement for all of you parents to get deeply involved in the lives of your kids. Carve out noiseless times. I met a man out in California this past spring who had pulled the phones from his three teenage sons in order to kill the noise in their lives. It was difficult at first, but now the boys love it and are thriving. I’m not saying you need to take away your kids’ phones. I am saying that you need to know their passwords, monitor all their social media accounts, and check their phones often. If the kids put up a stink, then the phone goes away. And don’t say you don’t understand all the social media stuff. That’s a lazy excuse. Learn it – it’s for your kids.
So, here we are at the end of my ramble. I’m not sure how coherent this was, but hopefully God will still use it. Pray for this generation of young people. All generations have challenges, but the waters this current crop of kids is navigating are far more treacherous than anything we ever could have imagined.