What's on your mind? A tale of teenagers and tech

Lay'li Mitchell used Facebook for fun. Then one day, it became a way to save someone's life. A tale of how social media has become an unavoidable part of the mental health picture.
Written by Stacy Lipson, Contributor

It was a typical June day for Lay'li Mitchell, a 14-year-old girl from Durango, Colo., until she saw this Facebook status message written by Alexa*, one of her former classmates, appear on her computer screen:

"I deserve to die."

She sprung into action. "Are you alright?" she quickly typed in reply, her fingers flying across the keys.

Lay'li knew that her friend, a former classmate from school, had been battling depression. She obviously sounded upset.

Lay'li stood up. Her legs felt weak.

I hope she doesn't do anything, she thought. What can I do to help?

Over the next several hours, Lay'li exchanged a flurry of text messages and Facebook messages with Alexa.

But at 11:15 p.m., the messages abruptly stopped.

"I freaked out," Lay'li said.

The only adult in the house at that moment was Lay'li's grandmother Terry. She was sound asleep, having dozed off watching television.

Lay'li shook her grandmother awake.

"If you think it's that serious," her grandmother said, rubbing her eyes, "We should call for help."

The limitations of the Internet quickly materialized: neither knew where Alexa lived. There also wasn't enough information on Facebook to track her down.

Lay'li tried sending messages through the site to mutual friends, but no one replied.

In a flash of offline inspiration, Lay'li and her grandmother scanned through hundreds of names in the white pages. But without knowing the first names of Alexa's parents, they were out of luck.

Then Lay'li thought to use her yearbook to track down classmates she knew were Alexa's friends.

After more than an hour of failed attempts, Lay'li was able to get in touch with an acquaintance who knew where Alexa lived and how to get there. On the back of an envelope, Lay'li quickly wrote down the directions. With enough information in hand, she quickly called the police and told them everything she knew.

When deputies went to the house, they found Alexa unconscious, a scarf around her neck. But she was still breathing. They immediately took the girl to a nearby hospital.

At 4 a.m., Lay'li received a call from the police. They told her that Alexa was fine and resting at the hospital.

After receiving the news, Lay'li cried from relief. Then she fell asleep, the tension of the moment released for good.

Two days after reporting the suicide attempt to authorities, Lay'li  was given a plaque and coin for her courage.

"It made me feel really good that I had taken it seriously," said Lay'li in a soft voice, when asked about the incident. "I would think that most people would try and help out in the same situation."

Lay'li doesn't consider herself a hero; that's for someone in the movies. But at 14, she demonstrated a level of compassion well beyond her years -- and that the open nature of social media services like Facebook means that someone, perhaps a person you least expect, is always watching.

"Technology is already playing an immense role in teenagers' lives, and it is growing," said Emil Protalinski, a technology writer who covers Facebook for ZDNet. "Not only is it very difficult to have a social life without technology, but it is next to impossible to function in today's Western society without it."

Social networking sites allow you to stay in touch with acquaintances beyond your most intimate circle of friends, Protalinski said. It's for that reason that a site like Facebook can be both a threat and asset to a teenager in distress.

"Facebook lets teenagers stay in touch with friends they cannot, or would not, see on a regular basis," he said. "It lets them socialize with many more people at once, though not as intimately as they could in-person."

Unless, of course, the intimate becomes the public.

Earlier this month, Dr. Larry D. Rosen addressed the topic in a speech at the American Psychological Association's annual convention entitled, "Poke Me: How Social Networks Can Both Help and Harm Our Kids."

A professor of psychology at California State University, Rosen said that teenagers who regularly use Facebook are more prone to stomach problems, anxiety and depression.

“While nobody can deny that Facebook has altered the landscape of social interaction, particularly among young people, we are just now starting to see solid psychological research demonstrating both the positives and the negatives,” Rosen said.

On the flip side, Rosen said that youth who spend more time on Facebook show more "virtual empathy" -- empathy in virtual spaces, as opposed to false empathy -- for their online pals.

What does it all mean for teenagers? Are social media networks -- with endless streams of status updates of acquaintances doing other things, most likely without you -- amplifying isolation and distant jealousy?

Are they reinforcing the feeling of being a spectator to others' lives?

On the other hand, social media networks are providing an outlet to address that isolation. After all, there's no barrier to joining the stream and posting your own update, if only to attract the attention of other spectators like you.

Sam Gosling, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas, says that Facebook can be a good place to learn about someone's personality. Research shows that the impressions people give through their Facebook profiles are much closer to what they are actually like, rather than how they would like to be perceived, Gosling said.

In other words: you cannot hide behind your status updates. Self-esteem starts before the computer ever turns on.

As for Lay'li, she's just glad to have intervened in time.

"If I didn't do it," she said, "I would've lost a friend."

*Name has been changed to protect her identity.

Image: Screenshot of Facebook

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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