It was just two weeks ago, on Monday, August 31, that a 33-year-old Army veteran who had served in Iraq took his own life by firearm. . . all while livestreaming his death on Facebook. While we know little to nothing of the backstory and circumstances, I’m sure many are pondering the role PTSD might have played in his actions. It is also reported that he had recently lost his job and his girlfriend.
This sad story has spread virally through youth culture due to the role that social media played and continues to play. Parents and youth workers are scrambling for guidance as they desire to help the kids they know and love navigate an online world where the graphic video, despite efforts to keep it from doing so, continues to live on in and through social media. While efforts were made to remove the video from Facebook as soon as possible, they were too late. Copies continue to be shared on a variety of social media platforms, most notably TikTok.
There are two ways kids are encountering the footage.
In some cases, they go looking for it and find it. This is case where word is spreading among peers and publicity, and they desire to see a video that’s become the buzz among friends. Perhaps this curiosity is to be expected. This reminds me of the expectation I shared with my peer group when we were shuttled into the required Drivers’ Education Class during our sophomore year of high school. Our rather immature and relatively naive selves waited with nervous excitement to view the classic old driver’s ed films “Signal 30” and “Highways Of Agony.” These real-life movies showed actual scenes of highway horror. Our cultural context then was not one where we had spent the previous years of our lives engaged with the steady flow of graphically realistic mainstream media violence that so quickly desensitizes kids today. Yes, knowing what was coming fueled our expectations and prepared us to better navigate the trauma of seeing such things, but it was still shocking. I remember our Driver Ed teacher kicking those standard-school-issue-green-metal trash cans into various spots around the room so that anyone who got sick had a place to do it. Kids are equally curious, but much more jaded today.
In other cases, the last two weeks have been filled with reports of kids, especially those who are much younger, being blind-sided as the video of the suicide has found them. It seems that in a sick-and-twisted way, several video creators have embedded the suicide clip into the videos children tend to watch sometimes endlessly on iPads and mom’s iPhone. So, for example, a three-year-0ld might be watching a Peppa Pig video when suddenly, out of nowhere, the suicide clip pops up. The damage is then done.
So, welcome once again to our brave new world. What should parents do to respond to what’s happening with this video clip?
First, it’s important to not only be aware of the fact that this video is circulating at the present time, but to have conversations with your kids. For kids who have not seen the video, you want to consistently encourage them to come and talk to you if they find or are found by any sort of inappropriate online content. You will want to define “inappropriate” so that there is a standard set by which to judge content. Certainly, you want to start with those things that undo our human flourishing through graphic depictions of violence and sexuality. For those kids who are older and who might either go looking for the video or who may have already seen it, it’s never too late to initiate conversations regarding content, nor is it ever time to stop having the conversations you’ve already had in the past. Parenting is not about once-and-done conversations, but about continued interaction on these things. Some may ask if the video’s specific content should be mentioned as we question our kids. Be careful here. You don’t want to give a younger child a specific online target to look for. For our older kids, a conversation might start by asking, “I was reading in the news about a troubling video going viral. Have you heard anything about this?”
Second, if you discover that your kids have already seen the video, stay calm and endeavor to respond without over-reacting. asking them about how they encountered the video. Did they go looking for it? Or, did it find them? Knowing how they got to it will serve to shape your response. For kids who went looking, there needs to be a conversation about borders and boundaries. Try to get to the root issue behind why they went there (curiosity for most) and then discuss that. For kids who stumbled upon it accidentally, you’ll have to tenderly embrace them as you walk them through the trauma they’ve experienced. Ask them to describe what they saw and how it made them feel. Trauma needs to be talked out as a step in dealing with it effectively.
How your child responds is important. If a child shrugs it off as nothing, they’ve most likely been desensitized, which should cause you to initiate a plan to remove desensitizing influences from their media diet, most likely what they are watching online and on TV. (For those of you raising younger children, this should cause you to sit-up, take notice, and establish/enforce viewing parameters now!). If your child is alarmed by what they’ve seen, thank God that their discernment filters are functioning well, as alarm should be an appropriate response to the brokenness in our world occasioned by human sin.
Third, communities should be aware that there is always the possibility of a suicide contagion that is triggered by a suicide like this. School districts go on high alert when a student takes their own life. Why? Because suicides can come in clusters where copy-cats follow suit. Sometimes this happens as troubled and depressed individuals now see suicide as an option they had not seriously considered before. In other cases the attention thrown on the one who took their own life is appealing. “Nobody is paying attention to me now. But if I kill myself they will be talking about me”, goes the skewed thinking. We need to be especially diligent in a case like this one, where social media and the news give the person and their death a very high profile.
Fourth, we need to see this story as an opportunity to have much-needed conversations about life and death from a biblical perspective. Hopefully the church and home have been working together to instill in kids a biblical worldview that sees everything in life from the perspective of God’s story and how it is being worked out around us. I have found it most helpful to teach the flow of redemptive history in a way that offers a clear perspective on what God is doing in the world, and our proper place in that story. We need to talk about creation and the shalom that existed in the world as God made everything the way it is supposed to be. We need to teach a robust doctrine of humanity’s fall into sin, and how everyone and everything has been left broken. Nothing is the way it’s supposed to be. We need to teach them about God’s great plan for restoring what has been broken by sin through the advent of Jesus Christ and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God into the world. It is in the Gospel that we find hope. And, we need to teach our kids to live in the now in light of eternity because this present world is not all there is. There is a day coming when everything will be restored. We can look forward to a time after the brokenness and suffering of our years on earth where there will be no more heartache, tears, disease, depression, or death. We must be sure to teach a theology of suffering in this life, letting our kids know that God uses suffering in our life to shape us into the people He wants us to be. If you have never had these conversations with your kids, it’s never too late to start. And, it’s never too early to begin.
Fifth, parents need to respond to this story knowing that it only represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of the kinds of inappropriate content their kids are encountering, can encounter, and will encounter online. Take the time to establish limits on time and place where kids are allowed to be online. I loved these simple and easy-to-remember guidelines shared by Alexandra Martiniuk from the University Of Sydney: Delay and Decrease access to social media platforms as long as you can as a parent, and together as a community. Discuss early – online safety, suicide, self-harm, cyber-bullying, sexting, video content, pornography, etc. And only use Devices in communal areas of the house for as long as you are able. (For a host of free resources, visit our CPYU Digital Kids Initiative).
Finally, a world riddled with the epidemic of suicide means that it’s essential to have conversations with our kids that get to the root of any issues they may be facing in their own lives. If you suspect your child is considering suicide, ask. And if they are showing signs of depression, get them help. Here are three specific resources that we trust you will find helpful as you navigate the difficult waters of teen depression and suicide:
Second, here is a very practical episode of our Youth Culture Matters Podcast with Dr. Marv Penner on Suicide Intervention:
And third, here is another Youth Culture Matters podcast episode with Dr. Karen Mason on Suicide Prevention:
Ultimately, our greatest desire should be to see our kids living intentionally under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who not only gives us eternal life, but offers to shoulder our burdens in this life.
I encountered something timely and related to this conversation as I was reading in The One Year Book Of Hymns this morning. It was the story of Edward Bickersteth who had heard a sermon on Isaiah 26:3 early one morning in 1875: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.” Later that afternoon, Bickersteth went to visit a relative who was dying. The man was deeply distressed. Bickersteth stepped out and penned the words to his hymn “Peace, Perfect Peace”. Then, he went back in and read the comforting words to his dying relative. You will notice that the first line of each short stanza reflects the problems we face in this world. . . both in 1875 and now. The second half reminds us that Jesus is present in these problems.
- Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin?
The blood of Jesus whispers peace within.
- Peace, perfect peace, by thronging duties pressed?
To do the will of Jesus, this is rest.
- Peace, perfect peace, with sorrows surging round?
On Jesus’ bosom naught but calm is found.
- Peace, perfect peace, ’mid suffering’s sharpest throes?
The sympathy of Jesus breathes repose.
- Peace, perfect peace, with loved ones far away?
In Jesus’ keeping we are safe, and they.
- Peace, perfect peace, our future all unknown?
Jesus we know, and He is on the throne.
- Peace, perfect peace, death shad’wing us and ours?
Jesus has vanquished death and all its pow’rs.
- It is enough: earth’s struggles soon shall cease,
And Jesus calls us to Heav’n’s perfect peace.
May all of us, young and old alike, rest in the arms of Jesus as we navigate the brokenness of life in this world.