Suicide, cutting, bullying, social media and, yes, caring adults. Middle school 2017.
LEWISTON — They face challenges every day.
Bullying, on social media and in real life.
Peer pressure and anxiety — to be good enough, to be “liked” enough online.
Insults and put-downs, sometimes blatant, sometimes disguised as a roast or a joke.
Fights in the first-floor bathroom.
Stress and worry over friends who post disturbing messages about themselves on social media. KMS (kill myself). A gun emoji. A pill emoji. Not to mention the distressing amount of self-cutting by their classmates and how are they supposed to respond to that?
Yet despite it all, they feel like they’re probably pretty average. They feel supported by teachers and school. They’re not sure parents get what they’re going through, though they might.
They like hearing when other people, strangers even, tell them life is going to get better.
Thirteen middle-school students agreed to sit down with the Sun Journal and tell it like it is.
And they did.
Lewiston Middle School, with 724 students, situated right next to Bates College, found itself in the spotlight last month after the suicide of 13-year-old Anie Graham and an immediate spike in teens seeking help in the behavioral emergency department of the hospital just a block away.
The Sun Journal met with the Lewiston middle-schoolers, ages 12 to 15, in a classroom 10 days ago with their parents’ permission. All of them knew this story would share what they said, though their names would be changed.
We started by asking if bullying was a problem.
Thirteen heads nodded yes and the teens took the conversation from there.
On bullying: “Once you get bullied, it kind of stays with you forever.”
“Roasting” became popular at the school this year, allowing bullies to say obnoxious things and then hide behind the guise of “Just kidding!” It has the added effect of making the complaining student look like they’re the problem because they’re just too sensitive.
“If I were to say, ‘Jen is being mean to me,’ people would be like, ‘What? That’s not OK, Jen.’ But if I’m like, ‘Jen roasted me,’ they’re like, ‘Oh my God, that’s great, haha, good job, Jen,'” said Melissa, 14.
Beyond roasting, there are insults like “monkey” and “slut.” And how a middle-schooler dresses — Crocs had become taboo at one point — can determine whether they’re a target. When all else fails, skin color, whether dark or pale, is handy for ridiculing.
“It’s like a big thing on my team, like at the beginning of the year … (making fun of) the color you are,” said Alexandra, 15.
Physical fighting, sometimes linked to bullying, is a thing for both boys and girls and these days, cellphone video can capture it for the entertainment of the whole student body. The middle-schoolers knew of at least one hot spot: the school’s first-floor bathroom, which is bigger and more private than others.
Cellphones have made bullying that much easier all around — like the time a boy recorded a talented girl’s voice cracking during her song in a school show. He posted it online for everyone to mock. (Adults were alerted and made him take it down, but the damage was done.)
Social media and the internet have elevated school bullying to cyber-bullying, a 24/7 ordeal that kids struggle to get away from. Rumors can spread farther and faster. Bullies can create fake accounts for taunting other students and hiding in anonymity.
“I think cyber-bullying is more of a problem at our school than real-life bullying,” Melissa said.
The middle-schoolers said both boys and girls bully, though some thought girls did it more often and might be more vicious.
“I feel like women know how to attack other women because we know our own weaknesses, especially at our age,” Melissa said.
It can all have dire consequences.
The middle-schoolers said their teachers and school administrators take it seriously and are mostly helpful in stopping it. But many agreed that shrugging off bullying is not easy.
“Once you get bullied, it kind of stays with you forever,” said Rachel, 14. “Even if something small happens, it’ll bring back a bunch of thoughts. People who bully don’t really realize the stuff that stays with people throughout their lives.”
On social media: “I think it’s kind of dumb to let people on social media at our age.”
All 13 of the Lewiston middle-schoolers had cellphones or another mobile device to get online. All had multiple social media accounts, spread among Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat.
Snapchat, the messaging app that allows private messages to vanish in seconds, was overwhelmingly the most popular.
Among the 13, many were monitored online by parents — required to share account passwords, allow parents to follow their posts or relinquish control of their online lives on demand.
“Every time they say, ‘Give me your phone,’ I have to hand it to them or else I lose it forever,” said Emily, 13.
The monitored kids didn’t seem to mind.
“My parents see everything I do,” Rachel said. “It doesn’t matter to me because nothing bad is happening.”
Despite that parental monitoring, the middle-schoolers maintain a love-hate relationship with social media. A lot more hate than love.
“I think it’s kind of dumb to let people on social media at our age. I think (it should be restricted to) like maybe 15 or 16 and up,” Melissa said. “I don’t know what boys go through because I’m not a boy, but as girls we go through enough feeling (badly about) our self-worth, especially in this generation. I think social media while we’re growing up isn’t very good. It isn’t helping us improve.”
They said many middle-schoolers’ self-esteem is too often tied to how many followers they have online or how many people liked their most recent post.
“We care so much about our Instagrams, like we have to have so many followers. ‘(So and so) only has 500 followers, that’s what I had in sixth grade, now I have 1,000!'” Alexandra said. “My sister, she’ll make jokes about my account … People compare to other people’s accounts, how many followers you get. It’s like we care a lot about what other people think about us.”
Blocking bullies online — preventing them from commenting on a post or reaching out over social media — would seem to be a simple solution, but they said they aren’t always comfortable blocking a bully because that can make them look overly-sensitive and can bring more attention to the situation.
“People just talk and talk, and that’s what people use social media for,” said Samaa, 14.
They find it distracting. At the same time, they said, it’s hard to turn away.
“You could go do something else, but instead our minds are triggered to hearing your phone buzz and you’re always just, like, listening for it,” said Emily.
At least one of the kids endured a parent-imposed cellphone break. For nine months last year, Melissa found herself living more like middle-schoolers did a decade ago, pre-iPhone.
“At the time I was angry. That was my phone and I thought it was everything, so I was annoyed. But in the long run, I think disconnecting myself helped me get better and heal,” she said. “I was thinking that my phone was helping me because I did have people that would help me over the phone, but at the same time, it’s a lot more hurt than it is help.”
Many of the students said they thought their lives might have been easier in, say, 1985.
“Social media in middle school doesn’t really help,” Rachel said. “At this age you learn a lot about life and how to socialize with school teams, teachers, friends. Social media kind of gets in the way of what you learn and what changes you into the person you’re going to be.”
On cutting: “I think it’s become an epidemic.”
Some students internalize bullying. And some, according to the teens, wear it on their arms, legs and thighs.
“There are people in my life right now that are cutting themselves because of bullying,” said Hani, 14. “Teachers tell us (to) tell them about what’s happening and everything, but there’s sometimes you can’t tell the teachers what’s happening because you don’t want to ruin a relationship.”
Out of the 20 to 25 kids in her literacy class, Melissa said she “can name at least seven people who have or do cut. I think it is a lot bigger than what it was last year and the years prior.”
“I think it’s become an epidemic,” she said.
No one in the room disagreed.
Like so many things, there’s a social media creep to it: Teens post pictures of themselves cutting or share pictures of others’ self-inflicted injuries, and it feeds a negative loop.
“When people post other people cutting themselves, other people will make fun of them,” said Samaa. “It just, like, makes them want to cut themselves more.”
Isabel, 13, had a friend who cut herself in sixth grade, confided to her what she was doing and told Isabel that if the teacher asked her about it, lie.
“She told me to say she just scraped her arm on a chair or something, but I ended up telling my teacher,” Isabel said.
Hani said she has done both: kept one friend’s secret and revealed another’s. She told an assistant principal she worried about one friend; that friendship, in the moment, blew up.
“She got so mad that she started crying, it was so terrible,” she said. “They had some police officer go check on her. She doesn’t do it anymore. We had a really deep talk and I was like, ‘It’s OK to cry and everything, but it’s not OK to cut yourself.’ It was because a boy kept on bullying her. He still does bully her. She doesn’t pay attention to it as much as she used to.”
On that same day, another friend told her: “By next year, I’m going to be gone.”
“I was going to go tell the guidance teacher about it, but she wasn’t there,” said Hani. “She’s not afraid to talk about it — her arm’s open 24/7. She’d always be like, ‘I’m going to cut myself more today.’ I get scared sometimes. I’ll tell her, please just stop. I’ll tell her, life is going to get better, you’re not always going to be in the same position your whole life. I feel like if I tell (an adult), she’s going to get sent away. Or something, like, really bad is going to happen to her, so I don’t want that all on her.”
The teens said they’re often not sure how seriously to take friends when it comes to talk of cutting, or something worse.
Suicide: “Instead of directly saying they want to die, they just say ‘Who would care if I did?'”
After Anie Graham killed herself, someone created a fake social media account asking Anie, “Why did you Hannah Baker yourself?”— a reference to the main character in the controversial Netflix show “13 Reasons Why.”
In the show, Hannah Baker kills herself by cutting her wrists in the bathtub after laying out her reasons for doing it in a series of audio tapes addressed to the people she blamed.
(The character’s name has also been sarcastically weaponized, the kids said, one middle-schooler telling another: “Don’t Hannah Baker yourself.”)
The social media account aimed at Anie turned nasty — think, according to the teens, things like “I’m so happy that she’s gone” — and adults intervened. Police said this week they looked into the account but didn’t have enough evidence to charge anyone.
“13 Reasons Why” debuted in late March. It may have inspired more public conversations around suicide, but the teens have been talking among themselves for a while now.
Riley, 12, said she has a friend who brings up suicide once or twice a week.
“They’ll post, like, the gun emoji or the pill emoji. They post it over and over again,” she said. “I don’t really know how to respond to those. They get mad if you report them to guidance.”
Another common theme: Posts that direct friends to write something nice about them. If those friends don’t comply, it looks like they don’t care.
“I’m so busy with sports and homework and stuff that sometimes I don’t have time to do that,” said Rachel. “So they think, ‘Oh, they don’t care about me.’ That’s not the case.”
“A lot of people post asking if anybody would care if they were gone,” said Melissa. “Instead of directly saying they want die, they just say, ‘Who would care if I did?'”
The rumor is that Anie posted things like that online, the middle-schoolers said. Now, other kids feel guilty for not responding.
“I had a friend who said she knew Anie was going through a rough time or whatever, but she didn’t do anything,” said Emily. “She said it was all her fault that she did that to herself. It was hard for me to tell her it wasn’t her fault without feeling like I was shaming Anie’s memory.”
Sometimes kids ask their parents for help. Sometimes they don’t.
Mostly, they carry the weight of their friends’ suicidal comments on their own.
At LMS, students aren’t taught about the warning signs for suicide until eighth-grade health class. They agreed: They could use that info earlier.
“Before, I would be like, ‘I can handle this, I can help them.’ They wouldn’t want me to tell anybody, so I wouldn’t,” said Melissa. “Then when Mr. Jalbert (the eighth-grade health teacher) taught us about it and made it very clear it wasn’t OK, it made me realize I should tell people.”
Hearing from adults who have lived through suicidal thoughts and depression also helps make a big difference, they said.
“They talked about how they were at a point in life where they weren’t happy and they’re so happy now, and life always gets better and stuff, and they just kept striving for the bigger picture,” said Emily.
Anie’s death, she said, “shows everyone to pay more attention to your friends and see how they’re feeling.”
Looking ahead: “At the end of the day it really doesn’t matter what people call you because there are so many people that care for you.”
Every morning, teachers stand by the LMS front door, smiling and welcoming students in — and that helps with all the stress and anxiety of life as a middle-schooler, the kids said. Music on Friday helps. Ignoring social media and gaining some distance helps.
Cheerleading helps. Focusing on school work helps. Running and sports help.
After losing Anie and Jayden Cho-Sargent, the 13-year-old who was hit by a truck on Main Street last November, “I tried to swim it out,” said Riley.
The kids said they remember the words and kindnesses of certain teachers. One middle-school teacher hugs her students and this June gave them highlighters with “you are the highlight of my year” noted on them.
Jack, 13, can still remember a sixth-grade assignment in which everyone gave everyone else in class a compliment. Hani had another assignment like that this year in math class.
“To get that kind of positively toward me just really, really gives you some motivation to keep going,” Hani said.
LMS Principal Jake Langlais, who sat in the back of the room for some of the discussion with the middle-schoolers for this story, said he didn’t hear anything from the kids that surprised him.
He said he hopes if students hear a friend say something troubling, that they’ll reach out to an adult.
“I have had many parents reach out to me over the year with concerning posts that I have pursued up to and including after midnight with the assistance of LPD,” he said a few days later. “In the face of tragedy, I think students put more weight on statements and posts because they know that there is a reality many of them couldn’t imagine.”
The school is reviewing all of its practices, including whether to provide those suicide prevention tips to seventh-graders rather than waiting until eighth grade.
Despite sharing the grittiest details of their lives for almost two hours, and not being able to agree, as a group, whether in high school things will get better or worse, the 13 teens seemed, on the whole, happy. They said they knew people cared.
“At the end of the day it really doesn’t matter what people call you, because there are so many people that care for you and everything, like your teachers, the principal,” said Hani.
“There are people in life that want to bring you down for no apparent reason. You just have to get yourself on a better path than them, so that they don’t ruin your life. You have to go for your dreams. Not like what other people want you to do.”
And her dream?
“I want to be a YouTuber,” she said.
• Tri-County Mental Health crisis outreach: 783-4680
• St. Mary’s Psychiatric Emergency Department: 777-8700
• Maine Statewide Crisis Line: 1-888-568-1112
• Maine wellness “warm line” (for non-emergency referrals and support): 1-866-771-9276 or 1-866-771-WARM
• Statewide community resources: 211 or visit 211.org
• National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)