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Ronan Hughes tragedy shows how social media has put risk of humiliation at an all-time high

By Fionola Meredith

Published 09/06/2015

Keen sportsman: Ronan on the playing fields
Keen sportsman: Ronan on the playing fields
Ronan Hughes, who was from the Coalisland area, died last week

It's hard to imagine shame so overwhelming that the only answer seems to be ending your own life. By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have weathered a number of storms, and we know that they end eventually, however painful or mortifying they feel at the time.

It's different for teenagers.

Some may have an abrasive exterior, some don't, but underneath most of them are exquisitely sensitive creatures, reacting to slights, shocks or setbacks with an intensity of deeply-felt emotion that older people have all but forgotten.

This is what it means to be an adolescent. Your body and mind are in a state of flux, caught between childhood and adulthood, and sometimes it's all you can do to keep it together. It's nothing new. It's a road we have all travelled.

What is new is that there is no privacy for teenage mistakes any more. That's where the real danger lies. If your whole life is visible on social media, documented on Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat, the risk of humiliation is at an all-time high.

And teenagers haven't yet developed the toughened hide that they need to protect themselves. An embarrassing error, splashed across the internet for anyone to see, could start to feel like the end of the world, a life sentence, something you could not imagine yourself living down.

Adolescents are impulsive and they are only starting to develop their capacity for perspective, for keeping bad days in proportion, and knowing that difficult times will eventually get better.

The terrible death of 17-year-old Ronan Hughes, from Coalisland, who police say took his own life after he had been tricked into posting images on a social networking site, is not an isolated incident.

Daniel Perry, also 17, an apprentice mechanic from Dunfermline, killed himself after being blackmailed over images on Skype. There are others, and there will be more.

So what can parents do? There are no easy answers. We can't retreat to the pre-internet days when adolescent errors weren't witnessed by the entire world, or at least their whole social circle.

All we can do is to warn them to keep sexual encounters private, and with people they know they can trust. And to reassure them that even the worst shame passes eventually, and that no mistake, however humiliating, is worth a life.

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