[This article is republished with permission from the New York Post (July 23, 2022) where it appeared under the title “Constance Wu’s suicide tweet proves social media can mean life or death.”]
“Looking back, it’s surreal that a few DMs convinced me to end my own life, but that’s what happened.”
Last week, actress Constance Wu confessed on Twitter that she had tried to take her own life after she made “careless tweets” about the renewal of her TV show, ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” in May 2019.
“So upset right now that I’m literally crying,” she had posted about the show’s renewal, which had forced her to give up another project she was passionate about.
As would be expected on a public platform prone to toxic discourse like Twitter, Wu was quickly assaulted by negative comments. Among those were two direct messages from a fellow Asian actress, who told her she’d become “a blight on the Asian American community.” Wu became convinced she didn’t deserve to live and attempted suicide, but was found by a friend and taken to the hospital, where she began a journey of recovery, she wrote in her most recent post on Twitter.
Wu is not alone in her struggle to cope with cruelty and negativity on social media. Earlier this year, 2019 Miss USA pageant winner and lawyer Cheslie Kryst jumped to her death from her New York high-rise. In a 2021 essay, Kryst had talked about her efforts to overcome cyberbullying: “I can’t tell you how many times I have deleted comments on my social media pages that had vomit emojis and insults telling me I wasn’t pretty enough to be Miss USA.”
Today, 72% of Americans use some type of social media, usually daily. We’re sharing faster and more often, and in recent years, our sharing has gotten more brazen, more emotional, and more caustic. Our national public discourse has deteriorated, especially since the pandemic. A CNN poll last year found that 76% of US adults believe Facebook makes society worse, compared to 11% who said the platform has a positive impact on “society as a whole.”
Today, adolescents and young adults are in the midst of a mental-health crisis, particularly among girls and young women. Though there are many factors driving the crisis, one in particular stands out. According to a 2020 study by Jean M. Twenge, PhD., author of iGen and Generation Me, mental-health issues like depression, self-harm and suicide among US adolescents and young adults began to rise in the 2010s, not long after social-media platforms and smartphones were introduced.
How do we raise the quality of our online public discourse and preserve sanity and human life in the process? The government can’t fix it. Elon Musk no longer wants to. And for obvious reasons, we can’t depend on Big Tech. Social-media companies depend on algorithms that encourage the addictive, often self-damaging, use of their platforms.
No, this problem belongs to us. Here’s how we can start to make it better.
First, save our young people. If you have kids, don’t let them use social media until they’re at least 18 years old. There’s a growing trend in this direction and a sensible case to be made for it. Just like with driving, drinking or owning a gun, this country puts age limits on all sorts of potentially harmful behaviors. While it would be almost impossible for federal, state and local governments to police social media use, parents should enforce the rule in their own homes as much as possible.
Secondly, consider ditching social media or limiting your own use to no more than 30 minutes a day, as recommended by a 2018 study, which found this time limit “may lead to significant improvement in well-being.” Focus your energy on building meaningful face-to-face relationships in your immediate community. Multiple studies have shown that real-life friendships offer greater levels of well-being than online ones and can build cognitive resilience that will serve you well later in life.
Finally, remind yourself that just as you have inherent value as a human being created in the image of God, so too does everyone around you, including those you strongly disagree with. How we speak to one another matters. And whether you’re a believer in God or not, the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:34-37, in the contemporary language Bible, make good advice before your next social post:
“Every one of these careless words is going to come back to haunt you. There will be a time of Reckoning. Words are powerful; take them seriously. Words can be your salvation. Words can also be your damnation.”
If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
You may also wish to read: Should kids under 16 be banned from social media? An internal study by Instagram found that using the platform made fully one-third of teenage girls feel worse — but they couldn’t stop. Karl D. Stephan: Evidence has been accumulating for decades that it is probably a net harm to young people. What we lack now is only the will to make the change.