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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

By Claudia Rowe, The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — “Thank you for being such a good friend,” read the text message on Juliana Borges’ phone. “I know you’re going to do well in life.”

Borges, then an 18-year-old senior at Lake Stevens High School, looked at the words, smiled and went on with her evening. She wondered at the silence when she typed back her appreciation but thought nothing of it until the next morning in Spanish class, when she learned that her friend had killed himself that night.

Today, only three years later, their exchange likely would have taken place on Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr — social media sites whose use has skyrocketed among teens and where messages are often open to the world, for all to see.

In the hours and days after five students at Marysville-Pilchuck High School were shot by a friend, who then turned the gun on himself, updates from teens flooded Twitter — everything from rumors to news tidbits to outpourings of emotion.

The shooter’s Twitter feed, too, was viewable, and it displayed a simmering angst in 15-year-old Jaylen Fryberg that went back months, filled with anger and vows of retribution — despite the fact that, in person, he was popular enough to be crowned homecoming prince of the freshman class.

And within a day of the assault, victim Shaylee Chuckulnaskit, 14, had more than 3,000 people following her Twitter account, even as she lay in a hospital, fighting for her life. She died from her injuries on Friday.

The surging popularity of social media among teens has not been lost on public health advocates, who are now working with Facebook to reach students in trouble. They say many young people are far more comfortable facelessly typing their pain on a keyboard and hitting “send” than walking into a counselor’s office to ask for help directly.

Fryberg’s tweet on June 20 could be a prime example: “Might as well die now,” he wrote.

Two months later he added: “Some (expletive)’s gonna go down and I don’t think you’ll like it.”

To Lauren Davis, at the suicide-prevention group Forefront, which is housed at the University of Washington and has contracted with Facebook to improve outreach to kids in distress, the teen’s posts were textbook.

“When I read Jaylen’s Twitter feed, it broke my heart,” Davis said. “Just classic cries of a young person in distress. I would put them on a PowerPoint presentation.”

Facebook contacted Forefront last summer and has continued to meet with Davis and her colleagues, discussing ways that social media can better reach young people who may need help, and aid concerned friends.

One idea under consideration: Posting crisis lines on the news feed of certain users, in addition to creating an online library of suicide-prevention resources.

“It’s pretty exciting what they’re trying to do,” said Jennifer Stuber, executive director at Forefront.

“There are some tragic warning signs that appear on social media, and posts often have very serious implications, so concerned users need to know what to do.

“I think it’s essential to saving lives.”

Pew Internet Research Project reports that 80 percent of teens use social media regularly. More than 22 percent log on at least 10 times a day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“A large part of this generation’s social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet,” wrote Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe and Kathleen Clarke-Pearson in a 2011 report. “Parents often lack a basic understanding that kids’ online lives are an extension of their offline lives.”

For that reason, sites like Facebook and Twitter have emerged as the new meeting place for reaching teens — the modern-day community center.

“Social media provides a huge opportunity to help, exactly because it isn’t behind closed doors,” said Kaitlin Lounsbury, a researcher at the University of New Hampshire who studies young people’s habits online.

Many messages laden with drama are only that. But Forefront’s Davis believes it’s better, always, to err on the side of over concern.

“Take every threat seriously, every time,” she said. “There’s a reason, a very pointed reason, why they’re putting that out to the world.”

Presently, Facebook relies on customers to report troubling content posted by others — for a company with 1.3 billion users, it would be difficult to monitor messages any other way.

When notice is received of potential danger, a team of analysts evaluates the wording of a post and, if deemed serious, sends a message offering help, which pops up the next time that person logs on.

Tumblr is more proactive. Search on a word like “depression” or “suicide” and a message immediately appears: “Everything ok? If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, self harm, or suicidal thoughts, please visit our counseling & prevention resources page for a list of services that may be able to help.”

Twitter, like Facebook, relies on its individual users to report postings that cause concern.

Neither company would make anyone available to speak on the record about their policies, saying only that the “sensitive nature” of the topic demanded that they “tread lightly.”

Federal communications law shields social media companies from responsibility for almost anything posted on their sites. Child pornography is an important exception.

But other than mandated reporters, like teachers, the law generally does not require that anyone act as a good Samaritan.

“In many jurisdictions you could literally walk past a drowning person, do nothing and not be liable,” said Ryan Calo, a UW professor specializing in Internet law.

He says that Facebook and Twitter are making efforts far beyond what they must do.

“They have hundreds of people looking at posts, around the clock, and are taking pretty robust steps to reach out,” he said. “I think this is something that they actually do pretty well.”

While a pixelated nudge from an online behemoth might sound hopelessly superficial, those who work in suicide prevention say any gesture can make a difference.

With that in mind, Borges, the Lake Stevens student who is now a UW senior majoring in public health, had an idea: What if she and other college students could go — in person — to teach high school kids how to recognize online messages that might mean a friend is in trouble, and train them to offer help.

“It was really quite an innovative idea,” said Davis, at Forefront, who has been working with Borges’ 3-year-old group, Huskies for Suicide Prevention and Awareness.

Later this month, the students expect to visit Seattle’s Roosevelt High. After that, Nathan Hale. A counselor from Shoreline has also extended an invitation.

As for the notion that flagging your friends might feel overly intrusive, Borges said the potential benefits outweigh the risk.

“Sure, a friend might get mad, but you are potentially saving their life and that is more important.”

AFP Photo/David Ryder

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