Suicide wasn’t the first thing on Collin Kartchner’s radar when he began his passionate play against social media, but it quickly jumped to focus when he started hearing from people who were close to teens with mental illnesses.
“One of the very first messages I got about suicide was actually from a paramedic,” Kartchner said.
Kartchner was using his social media platform to warn parents about the dangers of apps like Snapchat, why kids use it, and what parents should know about it, when he received the following message:
“I’m a paramedic, and we recently had a girl, maybe 13-years-old, attempt suicide. And you want to know why? Because her phone fell off the car and her screen shattered, and she thought her streaks [daily Snapchat messages sent back and forth to friends in a consecutive manner] were gone. We were literally taking her out on a bed and she was hysterically crying and screaming, ‘NOT MY STREAKS! I LOST MY STREAKS!’ It was pretty crazy to witness.”
This young, 13-year-old girl had no prior mental health history.
And the messages kept pouring in.
“That same day I got messages from two different emergency room doctors. One said that 50% of the pediatric suicide attempts are from cyberbullying on social media, and the other half are usually as simple as ‘my parents took my phone away’,” said Kartchner.
Kartchner went on to hear about suicide attempts and completions of children as young as 11 years old. One young girl overdosed on over the counter medication when her dad took her phone away from her.
“I think that was the first real big wake-up call to me how addictive these devices and apps can be for young minds,” said Kartchner. “It’s just too much for them to handle.”
The influx of messages about suicide is no surprise for Kartchner, especially based on the statistics that keep making headlines, in Utah, where Kartchner calls home. According to the CDC, eight of the top ten states with the highest suicide rates are in the Mountain West. Experts have even named the region “the suicide belt”, as recently reported by NPR.
Historically, research shows this region of the United States has stigmatized suicide for some time. Plus, mental health resources may also be unavailable, especially in rural areas. NPR reported that the only mental health facility between Salt Lake City, Utah and Denver, Colorado is in Grand Junction. That’s a 500 mile span.
Kartchner hopes to change that. Now his Instagram stories are dotted with messages from teens and mental health professionals talking about suicide and what can be done to prevent it.
“Kids today need to know their worth is not based on likes, comments, and people on their phone,” said Kartchner. “Kids can say horrible, mean things to each other from behind a screen, and if that’s happening to them, I tell kids to cut that person off. Block them. Block their number, their account. Don’t give them access to your mind and heart.”
Kartchner doesn’t call himself an expert, but with the number of teens and mental health professionals he interacts with on a daily basis, we find his advice more than helpful, it’s practical. For parents, he says you need to start by listening to your child.
“Sit in the ditch with them, and just listen,” said Kartchner. “Don’t cut him off as he’s talking. Don’t offer advice or interview for pain. Just listen. Then prod for more information with one-liners like ‘How do you mean…? and Tell me more about that…’”
Kartchner is also a father and feels passionately about helping children, including his own, share their emotions.
“So many of our kids today, boys especially, are in deep emotional pain. It’s still not okay for boys to share their feelings, or be emotional, or even cry,” said Kartchner. “They’re growing up in a world where things are almost too much to bear. They have pressure from us, from school, from friends, from church, all to be perfect.”
Next, Kartchner recommends remembering how it felt to be a teen or have anxiety and share those feelings.
“I think as parents, we need to be more real with our kids when they’re in pain,” said Kartchner. “We need to share how we struggle, how we feel alone, or inadequate. Tell your son how stressed you get from work duties or raising kids. Tell them it’s okay to have these feelings, it means they’re human.”
Get to the bottom of it
Don’t hesitate, figure out what may be causing these emotions. Kartchner suggests considering their sleep habits. Ask yourself, “Is their device in their room at night?”
“If that’s the case,” he said, “create a central charging station where ALL devices (yes, Mom, yours too) go at night, in the off position, so everyone can get adequate sleep. As we look at the rise in teen depression, which often leads to suicidal thoughts, lack of sleep is a huge correlating factor.”
If it isn’t sleep, Kartchner recommends you do a little more digging into their social life. Who are their friends? What is going on with their friends? Do they have a boyfriend or girlfriend? What is happening on their social media? Understand EVERYTHING that is going on with their friends and their phone.
Physical touch is what every child needs, no matter their age.
“I recently read how primates groom their young. When we see that on TV, we think ‘Oh, this mom is just scouring her kid for a meal,’ said Kartchner. “Primates groom each other not to score some free bugs, but to create physical connection with their young. I’m not saying go comb through your son’s hair tonight, but realize our kids need more affection.”
And above all, just keep reminding your kids, maybe even when you hug them every day, how important and valuable they are. Part of that is remembering how valuable you are, as well.
“Know your worth isn’t contingent upon virtual, arbitrary numbers on a screen,” said Kartchner. “Your worth is infinite, simply because you’re human.”
You can follow Collin Kartchner on his Instagram account and watch for updates about his latest speaking engagements. Join our Digital Parents by WebSafety group to read more articles like this and stay up to date on the latest digital parenting advice from experts like Kartchner.