Logan Paul, YouTube, and the 24% Rise of Suicide in America

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Logan Paul, YouTube, and the 24% Rise of Suicide in America

Man hands hate on to man
It deepens like a coastal shelf
Get out of here while you still can
And don’t have any kids yourself.

—Philip Larkin

Logan Paul is understandably the fattest target in the world right now. It’s as easy to slam a puerile YouTube star for exploiting someone’s suicide as it is to slam Donald Trump for anything he says or does, but Paul’s video deserves everything it’s getting. Keep the barrels hot, folks. What he doesn’t deserve, though, is to have his name mentioned anymore, so from here out I’m going to call him YouTube Dipshit.

If you’re like me, you held out at least some hope that 2018 might improve on what was the worst year in my lifetime. Jan. 1, so far so good. Then the morning of Jan. 2, I see the news that YouTube Dipshit posted a video of him and his pals laughing at a man who hanged himself in Japan’s Aokigahara forest at the foot of Mount Fuji, a site that has the infamous sobriquet “suicide forest” because…well, you can imagine why.

Dipshit titled the video “We Found A Dead Body in the Japanese Suicide Forest.” It begins with a viewer discretion warning, then Dipshit says he didn’t monetize it, and that it’s “the most real vlog” he ever made. He adds, “With that said: buckle the f*** up, because you’re never gonna see a video like this again.”

To be fair: He issued an apology that cited the video as a “mistake.” It’s one of the shittiest, most self-serving, oblivious, and disingenuous apologies I’ve ever read, and it only makes things worse. You can pick it apart here if you’d like.

About Dipshit: He’s 22 years old and estimated to be worth about six million dollars (?!). He has 15 million subscribers, and he and his younger brother were the crown prince dumbasses of Vine before that platform thankfully collapsed. The only joke I’ll make about him is just pasting a couple of pictures of what he looks like.

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And here’s how he chose to dress himself for the suicide forest video, which, according to his apology, was supposed to “raise awareness for suicide and suicide prevention”:

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He’s by any measure a terrible person, and on top of that has zero self-awareness. Have at it, Internet. I’m not interested in piling on, because there’s a reason this story matters beyond providing an outlet for our collective cultural rage at the year we just had. (And really, is there no better symbol for 2017 in America than a reality show sociopath blundering through a foreign culture he assumes, for no articulable reason, that he understands deeply, then seizes by his instinct for self-promotion on the human tragedy literally hanging in front of his face?)

No: This story illustrates in a profound and terrible way the real-world effects of the major decentralizing shift our entertainment culture has gone through over the last decade. I’m writing here specifically of the entertainment culture that targets and serves younger demographics, between say 10 and 22 years old. This story highlights better than most the fact that this entertainment culture is no longer trying to define itself but is firmly defined. It also makes clear who’s responsible for that culture, and what it, and they, value. More importantly, it illustrates what we—especially a certain slice of the generation who has grown up through this shift—tend to value, which is all too often brainless, self-serving doucheríe of the highest caliber.

This has always been true of entertainment culture, though, and on the surface my complaints are nothing new. Older generations (I’m 35) have always complained about the degeneration of kids these days, from movies to television to rock ‘n roll and hip-hop and video games. But I’d argue that the new dimension of interactivity, of going from passive consumer to active participant, is a fundamental break, and it has and will continue to cause seismic shifts in social behavior.

Okay, I’ll get to it: It’s no coincidence that our justified outrage here stems from a YouTube video of a suicide. This video forces us to look at the very real problem of youth suicide in America, and the direct correlation it has to bullying and the rise on an online youth entertainment culture that Dipshit has helped to define and spearhead.

The video is particularly insensitive in that Dipshit didn’t directly insult American culture, but Japanese culture, which has a much higher rate of suicide and of youth suicide than the United States. Suicide rates in Japan are among the highest in the world, and have been ever since the late 1990s, after a devastating economic collapse. They’ve since declined, but suicide is still the leading cause of death of Japanese youth (particularly severe among gay youth), which is largely attributed to the hyper-masculine culture’s severe stigmas regarding mental health and the perceived shame of asking for help. The fact that Dipshit even thought it would be a good idea to make a video in the Aokigahara with that stupid hat and “a football so we can have fun” is nauseating, let alone choosing to zoom in on a hanging body that he first thought might be a prank.

He raised awareness, all right—by calling attention to his own role in it.

Is there a link between cyberbullying and increased suicidality?

I feel I need to kick this off by saying I’ve contemplated suicide with a frequency I don’t feel comfortable about. But depression is very real, very powerful, and it can be very dangerous, especially with no one around who understands you. I’m lucky to have had such people in my life, which is probably the main reason I’ve gotten past it. But as a friend of mine who also struggles with those thoughts has said, “I’m glad I don’t own a gun.”

The stats show that a lot of you might feel the same way.

Between 1999 and 2014 the suicide rate in America increased 24 percent across the board. In 2015, suicide was the second leading cause of death for young Americans between 15 and 24 years old, and it was the third leading cause of death for those between the ages of 10 and 14.

Callous jerks might believe, going on little more than their own limited experience and assumptions that people’s experience the world over are just like theirs, that there’s probably no link between the two. Bullies are bullies, this argument goes. We dealt with it, so can these wimpy children of snowflake parents. They’re entitled, pampered, participation trophies, blah blah blah.

Not exactly true. Of course there have always been and always will be bullies, and that’s true at every age, but, thanks to plenty of media coverage, we know social media is actually a major problem. The stats back it up.

In 2013, about 17% of high school students considered attempting suicide in the previous year, and about 14% of high school students made a plan about how they would do it. But once you get out of high school, the percentage dramatically decreases. Dramatically. The same study found that only about 2.5% percent of adults between 18 and 25 years old had made a plan to kill themselves in the previous year, and only 1.35% of adults between 26 and 49 had made a plan.

Kids think about killing themselves seven hundred percent times more than adults.

More: The Cyberbullying Research Center, which conducts broad surveys annually, found in 2016 that about 20% of students who were bullied reported suicidal ideation, compared to 4% of students who had no experience with bullying. There wasn’t much difference between students who were bullied only in school or only online (both around 11%), but over 31% of students who were bullied both at school and online thought about suicide.

We need to break these stats down, because percentages don’t always reflect the raw numbers. For instance, 10% of 10 and 10% of 100 is the same, but the difference in raw numbers is huge: ten times as many.

First of all, if you’re bullied at school, you’re also likely to be bullied online. This doesn’t break the other way, though: About 80% of students unsurprisingly say it’s much easier to bully kids online. So to use that same example above, 100 students in a school might report being bullied only online, and 10 students might report being bullied only in school. The percentage is equal, but the difference in the number of students, then, would be literally exponential. We can also logically conclude that in the days when there wasn’t online bullying, the number of students who were bullied, and therefore the number of students experiencing suicidal thoughts, would in all likelihood have been much smaller.

On top of that, kids who were bullied in both locations were three times more likely to think about killing themselves.

There’s another thing to note about this youth statistic: Girls are twice as likely to consider suicide as boys, 22 percent to 11 percent. The social pressures on girls at that age are well understood.

Next question, then: Is this truly a new phenomenon, or are we not taking it in a wider context? If it is new, when did it start and what’s really behind it?

Something happened in 2008

Well, something happened in 2001 first.

The overall suicide rate in the U.S. had actually decreased steadily and significantly from the mid-1970s, when it reached its peak at around 12 percent. It bottomed out in 2000 somewhere around 10 percent, though, and has climbed steadily ever since. Not only has it climbed, it’s climbed far more steeply than it fell. Since 2000 the suicide rate in the U.S. has increased by about 25 percent, to a point where it’s higher now than at its mid-’70s peak. That’s to say the rate has in 15 years risen by the same amount it took to fall in 25 years.

What’s more, middle-aged white men have led the charge. Why? It’s unclear, really, but 2001 marked major cultural shifts in the U.S. that are playing out to this day. There have also been major demographic and socio-economic changes in the U.S. that have contributed to this. The rate seems to reflect itself in drinking, too: Alcohol-related deaths have increased by 37% since 2002 (liver disease, etc; not including drunk-driving). I’ll also point out that 2001 featured the biggest murder-suicide broadcast spectacle of all time: The planes themselves, of course, and then also the people leaping from the burning buildings. Suicides and murder-suicides are contagious social events, and the rate of contagion tracks with how much publicity they receive. Sept. 11, of course, was a defining moment in the American psyche we still can’t avoid.

Even so, 2001 wasn’t the inflection point for the high school demographic, the demo that tunes in to Dipshit. Something happened around 2008, after which suicide rates trended up in a big way. Something else began a sharp upwards trend that year in America: Mass shootings. (Which are often also suicides.)

Anyway: 2008 is a specific, well-defined inflection point for high-school aged Americans, who, as noted above, think about killing themselves far more frequently than other demographics. So what could have happened in 2008 to drive the youth suicide demographic up?

Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007. That same year, Facebook went mobile.

But there’s a second major inflection point in the rise of the U.S. suicide rate that cut across the board but had a marked effect on the youth. That year was 2010. It was the year that Rutgers University student Tyler Clemente, who had been bullied extensively online, threw himself off the George Washington Bridge. That suicide birthed the “It gets better” movement, where celebrities and then others took to the internet to encourage kids who were bullied for their sexuality or suffering from depression to hang in there and get through their teen years. The movement was well-intentioned and might have had a positive effect, but if so it was outmatched: After 2010 the suicide rate among U.S. teens went up even faster. Could the publicity of Clemente’s suicide, compounded by the well-meaning publicity from the truly compassionate online reaction, have contributed in some way to the increase?

I imagine many of you still remember Clemente’s death.

Oh yeah: My point

Let’s try to keep that stuff in our heads and now revisit Dipshit. This is the big point I’ve worked up to:

Dude has an impressionable and devoted audience of millions (15 million YouTube subscribers before posting this recent video; most of them kids in their early teens). This audience has been with him on his tour-de-himself for years now, and, though this is assumptive and not true of his entire audience, a sizable portion of that young audience likely doesn’t yet have a larger context to understand just how vapid, self-obsessed, and insensitive this dude and those like him are. If it’s not been evident until now, he clearly has no idea how the world works, and no idea of what a person’s role in and responses to that world should be. But his audience (whom he calls the “Logang”) loves him for his absurdist humor, irreverence, and charm, and, as with any teen icon, many look up to him and aspire to be like him.

I’m not doing anything so insane as to hold Dipshit personally accountable for youth suicides, but he’s the poster boy, and a vector of contagion, of what might very well be accountable for this rise: A major shift in our entertainment culture. He’s also clearly oblivious to this, and bafflingly insensitive to death, pain, depression, and suicide. He transmits this personality in an extremely concentrated, context-free form to kids around the world.

It’s extremely important, then, that we pay attention to the amount and the severity of bullying and abuse that kids who fit his demographic endure online. (Particularly girls.) And it’s no coincidence this happens on the very same medium they use to watch Dipshit’s videos. BUT: It’s equally and probably even more important to understand the amount and severity of abuse that kids who fit his audience’s demographic dole out to other kids on that same medium.

That shift, from being a passive viewer to active participant on the internet, only takes a tap of your finger. After watching a YouTube video you can just click on over and then interact with other people: bully or get bullied. Hell, you can be passive and active at the same time. On top of that, something like 91% of U.S. high school students use smartphones with apps such as Facebook, Instagram, etc. Our entertainment platforms have a dimension of personal connection on a scale and speed unimaginable before, oh, say, 2008, and some of the consequences have now made themselves evident.

This means that Dipshit isn’t just a piece of human garbage who should be plagued by sprained ankles and inoperable infected hangnails on every appendage for the rest of his life; his callousness means he’s completely oblivious not only to his audience (younger than him) but also to the medium he’s managed to dominate so well. I’d even say his domination of that medium is a direct result of his obliviousness.

The slice of Dipshit’s audience that can afford the free time, the boredom with their lives, and the money to make videos like Dipshit’s are likely but not always comparatively affluent. Some will imitate or be influenced by him, and so the culture perpetuates itself. This is true of any entertainment culture (see: white men in Hollywood), but the introduction of platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, etc, have allowed entertainment to scale far larger and far more more rapidly than ever before in human history.

In other words, entertainment has become so segmented and niche that the youth entertainment culture seems to be on a trajectory of immaturity, and that trajectory might very well be self-reinforcing, increasingly steep, isolated, and isolating.

But there’s actually some good news. Though it seems to be true that high school kids plan suicide at a rate seven hundred percent times that of adults fresh out of high school, the reverse is also true: Once we grow up just a little bit, seven hundred percent fewer of us have those thoughts and make those plans.

That’s to say that it really does get better. If you’re skeptical of the stats, you can take my word for it. You can even hit me up the next time some clown batters you online: rcsollenberger@gmail.com

And if you need to talk to someone, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.