The first alarm bells had already sounded in the second half of 2020. Several teams of scientists around the world, including Italy, began to document how the Covid-19 pandemic – thanks to the social isolation that characterized the fight against Sars – CoV-2 – was acting as a detonator for the mental distress of adolescents. A constant emerged from their research: the role of co-protagonist of the digital world in which – also thanks to the lockdown effect – some of them remained prisoners. Almost 4 years have now passed and studies on the complexity of the dynamics that push more and more young people into dark spirals with no exit have multiplied. Last in the long list is an Italian study by the Cnr-Irpps (Institute for research on population and social policies of the National Research Council of Rome) which, trying to understand the mechanisms that lead to the development of thoughts of suicide in adolescence, has brought to light one fact: almost half (44.9%) of Italian adolescents have experienced these thoughts at least once in their lives, especially girls.
Girls like Molly Russell, a 14-year-old British girl who took her own life at the age of 14 in 2017. Hundreds and hundreds of contents relating to suicide were then found on her social media channels and the conclusions of the investigation into her case were historic, pointing the finger at the first time also on the negative effects of this online content. Her case returned to the center of media attention a week ago, because a report by the “Molly Rose Foundation”, which owes its name to the girl, revealed how little has been done to combat the problem in recent years. And how little has changed on social media, despite the sites studied, TikTok, Instagram, Pinterest, all promising to create tools to limit access to harmful material.
The Rai3 program ‘Presa Diretta’ also dedicated an episode to this “bubble” which imprisons young people by “proposing their fragilities” to them, tackling an investigative journey among the families of the young people who were victims of these dynamics and among the experts who investigate on the impact of platforms and algorithms on the brain and mental health of very young people. “The message we would like to get across? That we are faced with a public health problem, which as such must be addressed, as well as drug addictions, as well as epidemics, as well as Covid”, explains Riccardo Iacona to Adnkronos Salute. “These are state issues that must also be addressed at the European level, just as the United States is moving from this point of view. We must save our young people from a disease that causes damage. The journey that Lisa has made is impressive Iotti”, who edited the episode ‘The Black Box’ with Irene Sicurella and Sabrina Carreras, “in public health facilities which have suddenly seen cases of, for example, eating disorders double, increasingly linked to frequenting social media. It is the one and the other, it is no longer a separate factor.”
Today, “this abuse” of social media is added to the aspects that contribute to the discomfort. “And we need national political responsibility – continues Iacona – because it is not a trend or fashion that we can marginalize by saying that it concerns a small percentage of people. It is something that damages us all profoundly. It should be added that overexposure to these platforms takes away time to our concentration, to our reading ability, brings brain changes”, photographed by scientists with imaging. “In short, we are handing over our lives, our data and our psyche to 4-5 multinationals around the world who make money on this.”
THE LATEST STUDY ON ITALIAN TEENAGERS – What leads a teenager with a life full of promise ahead of him to develop thoughts of suicide? TO clarifying a phenomenon that exploded with the pandemic and the lockdown is a study conducted by the multidisciplinary research group on social changes, evaluation and methods (Musa) of the Institute for Research on Population and Social Policies of the National Research Council of Rome (Cnr-Irpps), through a psychosocial research approach. The work has overturned the clichés by demonstrating that the psychological problems that fuel suicidal thoughts “do not constitute the origin of the problem, traced, instead, in particular dynamics of social interaction and in specific sociodemographic characteristics”, explain the researchers who also verified how alcohol abuse and the use of psychotropic substances are “secondary”.
The study, published in the ‘Scientific Reports’ journal of ‘Nature’, provides useful results for understanding the problem and designing targeted interventions to support youth well-being. It is based on data from a post-pandemic cross-sectional quantitative survey conducted by the group between 2021 and 2022 through the Capi (Computer Assisted Personal Interview) technique on a representative sample of 4,288 Italian adolescents from public secondary schools. . While the majority of studies on suicidal thoughts conducted worldwide analyze exclusively the psychological aspects of the phenomenon, the Musa group’s research analyzed the etiology of thoughts among adolescents by simultaneously examining a series of socio-demographic, psychological and sociological factors , to analyze its relative influence on the problem.
“The first data to emerge is that 44.9% of Italian adolescents have experienced suicidal thoughts at least once (23.2%, once; 21.7% more than once), which concerns thoughts of planning suicide, desires and concerns regarding death. The results – the scientists highlight – confirmed the existence of a direct association between psychological distress and suicidal thoughts, clarifying however how, with the exception of psychiatric implications, it does not determine but is determined by deterioration of human interaction. The social sphere thus emerges as the main object of research for the purposes of understanding and treating the problem of suicidal thoughts”.
“With respect to socio-demographic status, suicidal thoughts characterize girls more (6 out of 10 versus 4 boys out of 10), those who live in the northern areas of the country, those who have foreign citizenship, those who attend technical institutes, non-believers and those with a low economic family background – reports the study – As demonstrated by the mathematical analyzes carried out, however, specific characteristics of relational status and social interaction are at the origin of the phenomenon. Specifically, suicidal thoughts arise from a compromise in mental health characterized from anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, happiness and satisfaction, high intensity of primary negative emotions and a negative attitude towards the future”.
The aspects just listed are, however, “symptoms of the presence of a close and unsatisfactory friendship network, qualitatively poor relationships with peers and parents, problems with academic performance, hyper-connection, body dissatisfaction and involvement as victims in bullying and cyberbullying”, analyzes the Cnr. As for the particular female presence in the share of boys who express this problem, the experts analyze: “The fact that girls develop suicidal thoughts more than their peers is motivated by the influence of social gender norms and the pressure of aesthetic models that compromise their body satisfaction, self-esteem and the level of emotions”, reflects Antonio Tintori of the Cnr-Irpps, responsible for the survey.
Considering the serious impact of the Covid pandemic on the mental health of adolescents and the increasingly virtual transposition of social interaction, the study – conclude the authors – highlights the urgent need for targeted and contextualised interventions. “Our results show the central and crucial role of the school in supporting youth relational well-being – concludes Tintori – More expert interventions should be activated urgently starting from primary schools, with the involvement of teachers and parents, in matters of hyperconnection, deviance and relational violence, emotional education, self-esteem and deconstruction of symbolism and social conditioning that stereotype and hierarchize the lived environment, starting from gender asymmetries, substantially deteriorating the quality of life of young people”.
THE BLACK BOX AND THE LEGACY OF MOLLY RUSSELL –
To find out what’s behind that black box that risks harming the most vulnerable young people, Iacona and the Presa Diretta journalists traveled from the USA to the United Kingdom. “We tried to shed light on a share of teenagers in difficulty who was growing more and more in the aftermath of Covid”, says Iacona. In this story, you point out, there are also “families” who have decided to oppose. “Their testimonies are touching. And today a growing number of US states”, currently 41, “have sued Meta, claiming that the algorithms used in these platforms harm teenagers”.
The attention to this theme is somewhat of Molly Russell’s legacy.
“We interviewed the father of this English girl who committed suicide – says Iacona – What emerges and is worrying is that the algorithms know us better than we know ourselves. Especially TikTok” has ended up in the crosshairs of in-depth analysis on this level. “They are very powerful recognition algorithms: at the precise moment in which you even just pass over a piece of content that has to do with food, for example, from that moment on you enter a network in which they offer you contents of the same type again to keep you on track. attached to the platform as much as possible. In the end you enter this bubble, a world of girls with feeding tubes, girls who cut themselves, boys who have suicidal thoughts.”
The Molly Rose Foundation’s research analyzed more than 1,000 posts and videos, identified by searching for 15 hashtags associated with harmful material and which Molly used regularly. On Instagram, research found that nearly 50% of what was viewed was content that “showcased hopelessness, feelings of unhappiness, and highly depressive themes.” On TikTok, the research found that half of the posts examined with “harmful content” had been viewed more than a million times. On Pinterest, however, the researcher was actively recommended more images of “people standing on top of a cliff, drowning, stylized images of people free falling through the air.” It is “indefensible that social media companies continue to turn a blind eye to the extent of the horrendous suicidal and self-harming content on their platforms”, accused Michelle Donelan, Secretary of State for Science. Ian Russell, Molly’s father, took matters further to the BBC, criticizing social media for the “fundamental systemic failure that will continue to cost young lives”.
Iacona also recalls the testimony of Frances Haugen, who left her position at Facebook and later became a ‘whistleblower’ and made public internal documents that revealed the many controversial dynamics and risks of these algorithms. “With artificial intelligence all this becomes more and more powerful”, highlights Iacona. A multiplier of fragility, like the one that she held Molly in a vice “almost pushing her more and more” on the dangerous path she was following. “All this happens and parents don’t know anything, the filters that are advertised so much don’t work and can be circumvented – says Iacona – The kids end up isolating themselves in a world where it’s difficult to enter, and in this virtual world they maybe stay there all night “. There is therefore, she concludes, “precisely a theme of reducing harm and addiction and naturally there is very strong opposition from the platforms. Because the business is to involve teenagers”.
By Lucia Scopelliti
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