I-Team Investigates: Link between youth suicide crisis and social media?

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Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018
News 12 @ 6 O'clock / NBC 26 at 7

(WRDW/WAGT) -- According to the CDC, suicide is now the second leading cause of death for teenagers. Our I-Team found youth suicides are climbing faster than suicides in other age groups. Just last week, a nine-year-old in Alabama took her own life.

So what's changing? Experts tell us it is a problem with a lot of layers, but social media is one of them.

"The last time I told her I wanted to kill myself was in elementary school. But, I'm now starting to get bullied a lot by this one girl at school," said Katelyn Beasley, a tenth grader at Hephzibah High School.

Katelyn's friends call her Tinkerbell, but her best friend, Naomi, no longer calls her at all. Naomi took her own life 7 months ago. She was 14 years old.

"People was going on Facebook saying stuff about her, going on her posts and it just got to her I guess," said Katelyn.

We'll never know all of the emotions and layers that pushed Naomi to feel she had no other choice, but we do know what the world lost.

"She was really sweet. Very talented. Very beautiful. She was a good friend. Always there for me when I needed her," Katelyn said. "Even though she tried to be strong, they just kept bringing her down. And, I guess she forgot just how much she meant."

Naomi's death illustrates one chapter of a story GBI Special Agent Trebor Randle is trying to put words to.

"We were noticing multiple kids coming into our morgue every month. There was no rhyme or reason to it," she said.

Her team at the GBI took over the duties of investigating child deaths in Georgia back in 2014. They started noticing an alarming number of suicide cases, enough to call it a crisis.

"A mother we talked to found out her child had a plan. She had stockpiled scissors. She was 11 years old. What did she know about taking her own life?" said Agent Randle.

The GBI used to label these cases 'Teen suicides.' But, that no longer reflects the reality. Now, they call it 'youth suicide.'

Nationwide, suicide rates for kids from five to fourteen have nearly tripled since 2007.

"Now, 9, 10, 11-year-old kids are committing suicide, and it's getting younger," Agent Randle said.

2016 was the worst year on record. The GBI investigated 54 youth suicides in Georgia. And, South Carolina's numbers are even worse.

 

Experts have not been able to nail down one single cause for the spike, but social media is a recurring theme.

"One mean girl or mean boy says something about you, and they share it, and then it gets picked up and all of a sudden there's 100 bullies or there's 1,000 bullies," Agent Randle said.

And unlike our generation or our parents' generation, kids don't leave the bullies behind when they get off the school bus.

"They're not just getting it at school, they're getting it at home too," Joyce Beasley said. Joyce is Katelyn's mom. She's seen words on a five-inch screen make her daughter feel about that tall.

"He told her to take a knife into the other room, go in there and just kill yourself...end your life because you're worthless," she said.

A PEW research study found 90% of teens say online harassment is a problem that affects people their age.

Experts also say increasing screen time on electronic devices is a marker for depression. And, while the GBI cannot point to social media as the single cause for why more kids are taking their lives, they do say: something has to change.

"We just want everyone to open their eyes because we know now, kids are in crisis. The kids in Georgia are in crisis. What we do about it is up to us," she said.