“I LOVE you so much, just remember that please, and I’m so sorry for everything.”
This is the text message that Brandy Vela sent to her siblings moments before she committed suicide.
The 18-year-old raised a gun to her chest and pulled the trigger in front of her family in Texas. Vela had had enough of her cyber bullies.
For years, the teenager was mocked about her weight. Bullies bombarded her with hateful messages on Facebook. Some had even encouraged Vela to take her own life.
Yet while Vela’s story made headlines around the world, her case isn’t unique. Experts say that cyberbullying has become a growing concern in South Africa and is considered to be one of the many causes of teenage suicide.
“I don’t think to cyber bully is playing a major role yet in teen suicide in the country, but it has the potential to in years to come,” says Cassey Chambers, the operations director at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag).
This week marked Teen Suicide Prevention Week – suicide is the leading cause of death in young people between the ages of 15 and 29.
In South Africa, suicide accounts for 9.5% of all unnatural teen deaths. The National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey shows that 17.6% of teens have considered attempting suicide, while 31.5%of teen suicide attempts required medical treatment.
“What we’re seeing is more teens using social media to bully other teens, and this can have devastating consequences,” says Chambers.
According to a global online study conducted by YouGov recently, one in five South African teens had experienced cyberbullying first-hand and 84 people said they knew someone who had been bullied online.
The study surveyed almost 5000 teens aged 13 to 18 in 11 countries and found an average of 18% of teens were bullied online. In South Africa, the figure was 24%. South Africa ranked fourth after New Zealand, the US and Ireland.
“While bullying on the playground might have led to a bruise, bullying online now lasts for years to come.
“It also has a bigger reach. So many more people are exposed to the picture, comment or video,” says Chambers. “It’s not just the school jock or most good-looking teen. It can now be any student who wants to get back at someone else.”
Another worrying trend is where teens broadcast their suicide live on social media sites such as Periscope. Chambers is aware of a few isolated cases in South Africa.
“It’s important that parents get involved in all aspects of their child’s life and keep communication open with your teen so that if there is ever a problem, you could pick up on the warning signs or your teen would feel comfortable about coming to you for help. It’s vital to explain the dangers of social media.”
But while the internet has proven to be a playground for bullies, it’s also a handy tool for organisations like hers to help curb teen suicide.
“Sadag has used social media to help raise more awareness about teen depression and suicide prevention, encouraging more people to seek help. And we have seen teens reach out to us looking for help.
“We’ve also partnered with Facebook to launch an online reporting tool that allows friends to report a post/comment that may have suicidal content. In that way, the person would get an automatic message with our contact details offering them help.
“We started our Facebook Friday chats offering free expert help to anyone around the country for free.”
While cyberbullying is becoming increasingly prominent, there are many other contributing factors to teen suicide. “It’s normally a combination of issues that makes a teen feel so overwhelmed with their problems that suicide feels like the only solution.”