I’m horrified. I’m sad. I’m upset. I’m grieving. I’m concerned. I’m full of questions. I’m angry. I’m all these things and more on the heels of the death of a 14 year old boy. On Friday we received the news via text. Our son’s best friend had died. He killed himself. At 14. With his entire life ahead of him.
His mother sent us a short text, she couldn’t speak she said, she was too distraught.
The impact on our family was immediate and harsh. My wife deeply upset, both of us confronted with the task of having to tell our son who is also 14 knowing this would deeply hurt him.
We are in shock. This was no casual acquaintance. This was a kid we had known since he was 11. I won’t use his real name, but I’ll call him Toby for purposes of this article. This was a great kid, he was smart, he was funny, he was outgoing. The boys spent lots of time together. In fact Toby had just stayed over for 4 days during the recent school break. We knew this kid well. But perhaps not well enough.
No 14 year old should feel so distraught to take their own life. No 14 year old should have to receive the news that their best friend has taken their own life.
It was a difficult conversation. Denial, anger, grief, despair, shock, the need for answers when there are few. After initial shock and disbelief our son broke down in tears. He misses his friend deeply. He wants answers.
How the hell could this have happened? What would drive a jovial, seemingly happy 14 year old to kill himself?
I saw no signs. My wife didn’t see any signs. Our son didn’t see any signs. His parents and siblings didn’t see any signs.
The next day our son wanted to stop by and see the parents to pay respect. It was a difficult decision to make. We had heard nothing since the initial text. The family was obviously distraught, they couldn’t speak about it the text had said.
To go would be to impose on a family at a time in utter grief. But to go would be to pay respect, to offer comfort. To go would be to get a glimpse of answers to reconcile, to cope, to understand.
It was a tough decision, but we decided to go and let our son knock on the door with flowers. The parents opened the door, they let us in, we all hugged. The atmosphere was dreadful, profound sadness.
I saw a broken father, I saw a devastated mother, I saw a destroyed family. A total tragedy. Still they welcomed us into their home, we offered what comfort we could, which was very little. What do you tell parents that just lost their child? How do you comfort them? Nothing will ever make them whole again. The guilt. The profound pain and sadness. The lack of answers, what prompted it. How could it have been prevented? How could he have been saved? But also how useless to ask these questions. The answers won’t bring their son back.
They had no warning. He killed himself while they were in the house. They found him, the ambulance came, they tried to revive him, it was too late. The trauma of finding your child like this, I can’t even fathom.
They are besides themselves. They have no answers. There were no signs.
But it turns out there were and they are starting to be found in the cesspool we call social media.
Our son contacted his friends seeking answers. Nobody knew anything, except two people. Two teenage girls. He had confided some things to them. But they didn’t tell anybody. A flash sense of discretion? Not old enough yet themselves to have the maturity to make that judgment? I can’t say, I can’t judge, they are also very young.
I can’t get into specifics as there is an ongoing police investigation and facts are still coming out, and frankly the facts don’t matter for now. What matters is that a young 14 year old boy became so filled with despair, fear, anger and God knows what else that he felt compelled to take his own life for issues that would not have mattered 5 years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now.
Which brings me to two larger points I can draw from all this at this stage:
First off, and I’m speaking as a parent to other parents: We have no clue what these kids are up to on social media. Snapchat and Instagram, direct messages, group chats it’s a non stop pressure cooker of kids hyping each other up, creating drama, seeking attention, popularity or whatever. It’s a world of likes, retweets, popularity seeking, attention seeking, attention getting and reality gets warped in the process. Priorities lost, the online world becomes the dominant world that shapes perceived reality.
Kids are under pressure, their attention constantly drawn to the 24/7 social media cycle. It distracts, it emotionally warps reality, it creates drama where none is needed.
When I was in school I had my share of occasional challenges with other local kids. But at least I didn’t have to deal with the idiots when I went home after school. But these days it doesn’t stop when kids leave school for the day. Oh no, after school is when the real fun just begins, all afternoon, evenings, weekends, it’s non stop.
No wonder it becomes life consuming, no wonder it warps perceptions, no wonder it becomes all influencing and yes no wonder it becomes too much for some. And hence we now see a frightening trend. Google ‘rising teenage suicide’ and the results flood in.
Invariably you see reports that teenage suicide rates have increased dramatically over the past decade.
Well, it’s not hard to miss the obvious link:
It’s been 15 years since “The Facebook” was launched, and in this #CNBCClassic video we had Mark Zuckerberg on-air to discuss the future of the social media business. In 2004, his social networking site had 100,000 users. Today, Facebook has more than 2,000,000,000 users. pic.twitter.com/RaXcrw7AmY
— CNBC (@CNBC) December 1, 2019
The advent of social media. And this is where it’s all happening.
The first generation of children growing up on the internet, with social media in many cases their predominant form of communication and changing the rules of social interaction as we speak. Who knows what that does to their young minds.
Oh it’s bad enough seeing some adults turn into hateful ignorant idiots on social media. I’ve had my share. But I’m a grown man, I’m a big boy, I can handle it.
But tragically too many teens can’t.
And they are lost. Their pain unnoticed. The despair not recognized. Only until it is too late.
Don’t let it happen to you and to your child. We all bear responsibility. The way we conduct ourselves on social media. We need to be a good example, we need to teach, but we also need to be aware. We need to trust but verify. Newflash: Kids will lie even to their best friends.
As it turns out Toby’s girlfriend sensed something was off. The day before he died she contacted our son on Snapchat. She asked him: Do you sense anything wrong with Toby, he’s been acting strange. Our son hadn’t noticed anything, but asked Toby directly on Instagram. He said everything was fine. It wasn’t. This was the last time they messaged each other. Toby died the next day.
I’m horrified about the pain and anguish that his death has caused to his family, to our family and to all his young friends.
I’m sad about the life he will never get to experience, the many years still ahead of him, to fall in love, to develop, to grow, to start a family.
I’m also angry. I’m angry that this child was inflicted with so much pain and stress that he felt it necessary to take his own life.
All for what?
And yes, I’m also extremely frustrated. 4 days he spent at our home in November. I didn’t notice a thing even though we now know the pain was present for months in the social media trail. None of us picked up on anything.
Nobody who could’ve intervened noticed. Not us, not his parents, not the school, not most of his friends. Society failed this promising young boy.
Kids need our guidance, they also need our supervision and our example. And if the adults act like jerks on social media why should we expect kids to act any better?
I’m no expert on psychology, I’m just a parent that sees what these kids are exposed to and I see the tragedy that can come as a result. All I can say is pay attention, don’t assume anything, if access to social media is provided be sure you have access and monitor the conversations and messages. Nobody saw the signs because nobody was looking in the place where they were hiding. On social media. Above all make sure your child knows and feels comfortable to come to you when in distress, even when it is hard, especially when it is hard.
And therein lies perhaps the most disturbing message of this particular tragedy: Just because your child is at home does not mean your child is safe.
Updated April 18, 2021
It’s been a year and a half since Toby’s death & the grief remains & answers never came. Our son is still struggling with what happened. He wrote & recored this song for his best friend a few weeks after his death when he was 14 himself. It’s about his imagined life & his future self looking back at his life. He released it today on what would’ve been his friend’s 16th birthday.