Hiding in plain sight: Inside the online world of suicidal teens
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Hiding in plain sight: Inside the online world of suicidal teens

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Two days before Thanksgiving, Alejandra Agredo of Miami wrote on her Twitter account, “i could use a hug right now.” Hours later, the 17-year-old stepped in front of a train.

In April of 2018, 19-year-old Anthony Wolkin-Grudin of Tamarac posted on Facebook, “Should i cling to life? Or should i just kill myself? It’s getting harder and harder to mask my pain. I can’t tell if i wanna live or if i wanna die.” Months later, he took his life in a park.

On the Saturday before the new year, Bryce Gowdy of Deerfield Beach posted on Twitter: “To be or not to be.” Days later, the 17-year-old killed himself.

More than ever before, young people on smartphones immerse themselves in a digital atmosphere of high drama where a subculture of depressed and suicidal teenagers thrives, out of sight of most adults. As they share despondent messages, teenagers can find support in difficult times. But they also can encounter a push towards self-destructive behavior — or encouragement to “just kill yourself.”

On Instagram, there now are more than 2 million posts with the hashtag #kms (kill myself), 554,000 with #hatemyself and 631,663 with #lifesucks. Teens say they also use less obvious hashtags or coded language text to talk about their demons and sense of worthlessness in places parents wouldn’t think to look — such as #secretsociety123, which has a dozen variations and more than 500,000 posts. They also use code names for mental health disorders, such as Annie for anxiety and Sue for suicidal.

“Parents are allowing kids to go in their room, close the door and live a whole other life in cyberspace,” said Daniel Bober, a Hollywood adolescent psychiatrist and chief of psychiatry at Memorial Healthcare System. “Not every place online they turn to encourages them to get better.”

The South Florida Sun Sentinel spoke with more than four dozen South Florida teenagers over the last six months about the role social media plays at a time when Florida’s youth suicide rate has risen more than 50% over the last decade. Many South Florida teens admitted to spending hours, days, even weeks unburdening themselves about suicide and depression in a hidden online world where adults don’t interfere.

Once caught up in the social vortex, teens wallow in self-hate, writing about how parents don’t understand them and why they want to die. Beyond the usual teenage self-pity, they also share gruesome videos of self-inflicted cuts, images of beloved cartoon characters in suicidal acts, and memes with grim messages such as “do it.”

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