Jeff Collins speaking at SMSS 2018

Reducing Teen Suicide Using Social Media: Social Media Safety in Schools #SMSS2018 Event Recap

January 29, 2018

Teens, social media companies, mental health professionals, teachers, and others joined us on January 17th to explore how social media can be better utilized to prevent suicide and have a positive impact on the mental health of teens at the 2018 Social Media Safety in Schools (SMSS) Conference.

“Suicide is a layered, complex issue. It’s not simple, and we all need to work together.”

— Jonathan Frecceri, Lydian Academy, University of San Francisco

Participants spent the first half of the day sharing their experiences and learning about the efforts of others, from researchers at the Oregon Suicide Prevention Program to a panel of teens who discussed how they take care of their mental health, their daily social media habits, and what they believe would help prevent teen suicide.

Ryan Polgar

The event, the second annual Social Media Safety in Schools Conference, began with an introduction and event overview by event facilitator David Ryan Polgar, a tech ethicist and digital citizenship expert. Polgar set a hopeful yet realistic tone for the conference, noting that new technologies can have unintended negative effects or bring benefits to society. As he sees it, “social media is like a knife — it can be used to inflict pain or carve a better future.” He called on everyone in the audience (and watching the livestream) to listen, learn, and then think actively and creatively about how to come together to help address teen suicide and improve teen mental health.

Stanford University Psychiatrist Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, education professional Jonathan Frecceri, and researcher Christabelle Moore opened the morning sessions by presenting their research and personal experience related to the impact and promise of technology on teen mental health.

Aboujaoude, an expert on impulse control disorders who has also studied the intersection between technology and psychology, explained that while the internet in many ways has “redrawn the suicide landscape,” companies from Facebook to Snapchat to Twitter have worked to identify at-risk behavior and help steer users toward help. He called for more research into the efficacy of these programs.

Frecceri, a child therapist who serves as Principal at the Lydian Academy in Palo Alto,  focused on challenges and progress at the local level. From his clinical expertise, and experience as a school’s Mental Health and Wellness Coordinator, Frecceri concludes that students must be a part of the solution, “We need to bring the students into the mix. It’s their voice. They really have the most power to change these cultural norms around mental health and suicide.”

Christabelle Moore, a Prevention Science PhD student and part of the Suicide Prevention Lab at the University of Oregon, shared details on the implementation of the Youth Suicide Intervention and Prevention Plan in Oregon, a state with suicide rates approximately 42% higher than national average. The 5-year plan includes goals to reduce the number of completed suicides by young people to 0 and to eliminate “the stigma that results in discrimination against people with mental health and substance use disorders.”

During these presentations, student participants split off from the main group to engage in an conversation led by #ICANHELP Co-founder Matt Soeth, and crisis counselor and social media expert Libby Craig. Students shared some of their personal stories, and discussed challenges and hopes, in a private setting. Soeth and Craig emphasized to the students how important they — and their actions — are to helping shape the future, and encouraged them to share their perspectives so that we can create lasting solutions.

Following the morning presentations and student breakout session, the conference featured two panel discussions, covering teenage students’ experiences with technology and mental health, and companies’ efforts to address mental health-related issues.

During the student panel, teens from California shared their thoughts, experiences, and habits on social media. A theme that emerged throughout the student panel was that social media is ingrained in their lives and here to stay. One student shared their feelings on what kept bringing them back to social media,“you wonder if there’s something going on in the world or with your friends that you don’t know about.”

The companies panel featured diverse voices from from both social driven companies (YouTube, After School) and organizations that use technology to help improve mental health (7 Cups, Crisis Text Line, and AnxietyHelper).

Sixteen-year-old Amanda Southworth connected being a teen with the company perspective. She described how she turned the tables on her personal struggles with anxiety, depression, peer pressure, and bullying by using her computer programming skills to help other young people. Southworth developed AnxietyHelper app, a mental help tool kit, and Verena, “a security system for the LGBTQ+ community.”

Rachel Madden, Public Policy Analyst from YouTube, described her company’s continual “balancing act” to make content accessible while keeping users safe. Christian Crumlish, Head of Product at 7 Cups, explained how his organization offers a sense of community, where teens can be themselves and get support immediately, rather than waiting days or weeks to see a mental health professional. Anonymity, he noted, has been an important factor in helping teens on 7 Cups to open up on difficult topics like bullying, substance abuse, depression, and anxiety. Crisis Text Line’s Scotty Huhn stressed the importance of working together, saying, “there needs to be a tight feedback loop between all companies.”

Following a morning full of learning, the conference shifted in the afternoon to action-oriented themes. At lunch, After School CEO Michael Callahan and Suicide Prevention App Founder Chris Munch both described how the issue of suicide had touched them personally, and what they had done to channel their difficult experiences into actions that could help others in today’s interconnected online world.

Conference participants then split into small breakout groups to engage in an exercise that required them to consider how to best handle two hypothetical situations involving teens, schools, social media, and suicide. Collaboration among teens and adults from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines helped the groups create solutions that were creative and comprehensive. “I really noticed how important having those different voices and perspectives were. My group kept turning to the student voide to ask what they would do, how they would respond to these scenarios to see what was actually feasible,” said Libby Craig.

Social Media Safety Twitter Chat

While the in-person event was happening in San Francisco, After School also led a Twitter chat with participants from around the world — #SocialMediaSafetyChat. During the chat, teens, anti-bullying activists, and organizations focused on mental health explored eight questions covering the intersection between teens, technology, and mental health.

Back at the conference, participants took a step back from a busy day discussing important issues, to join a 20-minute meditation session guided by Sara Silberstang, the founder of the wellness company MindBodyLove. Attendees found it refreshing to take a step back, relax, and refresh before moving on to the event’s conclusion.

Several speakers tied together the various strands of the day during their concluding remarks. Thomas Insel, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who served as Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, discussed how the complexity of suicide calls for an approach that is distinct from other mental health challenges. “Suicide is a complex problem…complex problems require a different kind of thinking about them.” A significant part of the solution to suicide, according to Insel, will be created by teens. “Students need to be involved as co-developers.”

During his closing statement, David Ryan Polgar said his biggest takeaway was that we need to better connect organizations, companies, researchers, educators, and the perspectives of teens. He noted that “social media companies are now deeply aware of their responsibility [to help young people], but need the assistance of experts around mental health.” For Polgar, “this is no longer about making a sticky apps that grabs eyeballs — this is about improving technology to save lives.”

#ICANHELP’s Matt Soeth echoed Insel’s thoughts that “students must be part of the solution.”  “They are creative and have a voice, they just need a platform to use it.” He called on participants to commit to working together as one to create a better future.

Keeping the Momentum Going

After School and My Digital TAT2 made a commitment to continue the momentum from this unique conference by announcing they would co-host a follow-up event in April 2018.  For more information about this event and others, and to participate, please contact After School at

If you missed the livestream and are interested in seeing the morning sessions and panels, check out the recordings from the event:


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