By Jim Powers
Like most teenage boys in the 1960s, I was obsessed with cars. And, like most teenage boys in the 1960s, I didn’t have much money.
Unlike today, though, a broke teenager could buy a running used car for a few hundred dollars. Cars were not as durable then, as they are now, so any used car I was able to buy as a 16-year-old required a lot of work to keep it running. And due to that “didn’t have much money” qualifier, I had to learn to fix what broke myself. I usually spent more hours under the hood of the car twisting wrenches than driving the car. But I got really good at fixing what broke in them.
After I was able to buy new cars, I continued my obsession with old cars, and always had one around in some degree of restoration. I have an old friend who noted, accurately, that I was the only person he had ever met that had a wrecker on speed dial. One of the old cars was always breaking down somewhere!
Later, as the young pastor of an old church, I learned very painfully one of many life lessons: broken people are much harder to fix than broken cars. And the corollary, if you don’t know how to fix it, get help. Unfortunately, I was much too young and arrogant to understand that.
One of the church member’s adult sons committed suicide. He was devastated. Never in my limited experience had I encountered that level of grief. I had neither the tools nor the time under the hood to adequately respond to this parent’s grief at losing his son in this way.
No theological bromide was going to heal his pain. What he needed was human compassion and empathy. What he got was a young preacher steeped in religion, who didn’t understand how fragile and irreplaceable human life can be. You can fix a broken big block chevy engine. But sometimes you can’t fix a broken heart.
To be fair to my younger self, I doubt that anyone could have helped this man. He blamed God for the death of his son and ultimately abandoned his faith. But I will never know because I didn’t accept my limitations and call an older mentor. I learned a valuable life lesson that helped me deal more effectively with this situation later, but at what cost?
According to a 2020 US HHS report, suicide rates increased 57.4 percent in pediatric patients between 2007 and 2018. Children and teenagers are killing themselves at a higher rate. Those dates are significant because they correspond to the rise of smartphone and social media use in the U.S. Many studies illustrate the causal relationships between the rise of social media use and increased suicide rates, so I’m not going to bury you in minutia, but here are a few data points.
Apple’s Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone in January of 2007, and it was released in June of 2007. On September 26, 2006, Facebook opened to everyone a least 13 years old who had a valid email address. The completed version of Twitter debuted in July 2006. Over the years since 2007, numerous other social media websites have appeared. While correlation is not necessarily causation, numerous studies have highlighted strong evidence linking increased social media use to increasing suicide rates over all ages, primarily because of increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, and self-harm by those heavily engaged in social media. Cyber Bullying also increases risk factors for suicide.
The teenage years are challenging for everyone under the best of circumstances. When I was a teenager over 50 years ago, we made lots of mistakes and did a lot of dumb things. The difference in the 1960s and the 2000s is that the consequences were much less severe when we screwed up. We could get away with a lot more, and if we did get caught, say driving too fast (o.k., street racing), or drinking underage, the worst outcome was likely a call by the local cops to our parents (not that such was a desirable outcome), not hauled into jail and having a criminal record. It also made a difference that those mistakes weren’t played out to a billion people on Facebook.
Mistakes were local, not global.
I can tell you from experience that it’s hard to fix broken people. We have enough evidence now to know that social media breaks people. Children and teenagers are particularly susceptible because peer pressure and approval are so important to them. Now these kids have billions of peers, many who hide behind the anonymity of the Internet to attack and tear them down. Casual cruelty is endemic on the Internet.
There is no “net good” to social media. It has destroyed our culture and is inevitably distorting our kid’s (and our own) understanding of reality. And, it seems, it is literally killing them
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