School shootings, teen suicide: The hidden consequences of social media

School shootings, teen suicide: The hidden consequences of social media
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The highest murder rate in decades. The highest rates of robbery and rape. It’s no wonder a young man with mental health issues committed a horrendous act of violence.

2018?

No. 1980.

In 1980, the murder rate (murders per 100,000 population) was 10.2. If we could only go back to a more peaceful time. Say … 1960. Except 1960 was more violent than 2016 (the last year full details are available) — 5.1 murders per 100,000 compared to 5.0.

What can explain the actions of the accused Florida shooter, Nikolas Cruz? What else did Cruz have unlimited access to, that could have had an influence on him?

Social media. Especially access to violent and harmful social media.

Nikolas Cruz allegedly did everything except call law enforcement with the exact date, time and location of his intended massacre. Criminals don't make appointments, but they do leave clues. Nikolas Cruz did — a ton of them, online

  • Instagram pictures of mutilated frogs, weapons and knives.
  • "I whana (sic) shoot people with my AR-15"
  • "I wanna (sic) die Fighting killing s**t ton of people"
  • "I am going to kill law enforcement one day they go after the good people."
  • "Im (sic) going to be a professional school shooter." Signed with his real name.
  • "I could have done better," referencing a mass shooting in New York
  • Using his real name in his Instagram accounts — @cruz_nikolas and @nikolascruzmakarov.
  • Snapchat (now Snap) video showing Cruz cutting his arms.

The real reason the FBI and local law enforcement didn't connect the dots is because they don't fully understand the new dots of social media. To grasp how social media can have such a massive impact, compare its growth and the tragic increase in the suicide rate for children and teens ages 10-19.

Since 2010, the monthly active users for Facebook has grown 300 percent to over 2 billion and for Twitter, 511 percent to 330 million. Since 2013, Whatsapp has grown 225 percent to over 1.4 billion and Instagram, 433 percent to 800 million. Since 2014, Snap has grown 159 percent to 187 million and Facebook Messenger, 140 percent to 1.2 billion.

YouTube is a little different. Watching video doesn’t need an account. To put this behemoth in perspective, there are 300 hours of video uploaded every minute. There are over 30 million visitors per day watching 5 billion videos.

From 2007 to 2015 (the last year data are available) the suicide rate for boys ages 10-14 increased 200 percent; for girls ages 10-14, 320 percent; for boys ages 15-19, 127 percent and for girls 15-19, 204 percent. Suicide went from the fourth leading cause of death for boys ages 10-14 to second. For girls ages 10-14, it went from sixth to third. Suicide passed homicide as the second leading cause of death for boys ages 15-19, and jumped from fourth to second for girls ages 15-19.  

Consider further the lessening risks our children and teens face from homicide, compared to their risk for suicide, according to data from the FBI and CDC:

Fact 1: The homicide rate for 10-14 year olds in 2015 was half of what it was in 1979 (.05 vs .10).

Fact 2: The suicide rate for 10-14 year olds in 2015 is almost double what it was in 1979 (.13 vs .07). It's the highest rate in over 36 years.

Fact 3: The homicide rate for 15-19 year olds in 2015 is almost half of what is was in 1979 (.45 vs .95).

Fact 4: The suicide rate for 15-19 year olds in 2015 was 21 percent lower than in 1979 (.63 vs .79). Starting in 2007, the suicide rate began increasing after 18 years of dropping. The homicide rate also peaked that same year. In 2011, suicide overtook homicide as a cause of death for both boys and girls age 15-19. Suicide has become the second leading cause of death for boys since 2008, and since 2013 for girls.

Children ages 10-19 are statistically twice as safe from homicide as they were 36 years ago, even though the population has increased 45 percent (225 million in 1979 to 325 million in 2015).

The deluge of negative social media can't be ignored when the suicide rates for our children have increased on average 212 percent since 2007. Which begins to explain how Nikolas Cruz may have ended up with his warped view of reality.

Garbage in — garbage out.

Take Instagram as an example, where Cruz is alleged to have made many of his posts. Searching by hashtags reveals much of the violence, negative influence and harmful aspects. Want to see pictures of teens committing self-harm by cutting themselves with razors? Check #selfharmmm. Over 2 million posts. Cruz is thought to have also posted to Snap a video of cutting himself.

Another hashtag of #suicidal has over 4.7 million posts. And #suicide has over 7 million posts. On the morning of the shootings, I was conducting research of several posts on Instagram. The following, unrelated to the shooting, was posted on Feb. 14, shortly before 9 a.m. EST; the shootings at Douglas High School didn’t begin until about 2 p.m. EST:

I had been heads-down working on some large projects on Feb. 14: No news, no social media, no web surfing. I recorded this Facebook Live around 6 p.m., still unaware of the shootings. I showed this picture of the Instagram post and asked what parents would do if they saw their children had posted this. In fact, I had completed a guide on Instagram called Talking in Code: Instagram Hashtags-What You Don’t Know and Why It’s Dangerous. 

In her book “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What This Means for the Rest of Us,” Jean Twenge, PhD and professor of psychology at San Diego State University, conducted fascinating research into the generation Nikolas Cruz is smack in the middle of.

Her research showed that today’s connected 18-years-olds are more like 14-year-olds and 8th graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to be unhappy than those who don’t.

Teens are physically safer than ever, yet they are more mentally vulnerable.

Violence in — violence out.

Morgan Wright is an expert on cybersecurity strategy, cyberterrorism, identity theft and privacy. He’s currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for Digital Government. Previously Morgan was a senior advisor in the U.S. State Department Antiterrorism Assistance Program and senior law enforcement advisor for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Follow him on Twitter @morganwright_us.