Report Looks at Internet as Influence in Suicides

Filed under: In The News, Tween Culture, Teen Culture, Behavior: Tweens, Behavior: Teens

suicide photo

Rutgers students attend a candlelight vigil for suicide victim Tyler Clementi. Credit: Reena Rose Sibayan, AP


The increase in the number of reports about online suicide pacts, often between people who have never even met, suggests the possibility of a growing phenomenon, according to a report released today by British medical journal The Lancet.

Suicide prevention organizations, like National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S. and Samaritans in the UK, have already started taking steps to combat this in a number of ways -- such as purchasing Google ads so their helpline phone numbers appear at the top of the page any time someone searches for terms related to suicide.

A similar mechanism can also be found on Facebook, MySpace and YouTube; in addition, Samaritans is said to be in talks with social networking sites to create a system, by which friends or family can raise concerns about a specific individual, says The Lancet.

In the current report, Lancet Senior Editor Niall Boyce says the Internet can be a positive tool for those experiencing emotional distress, however, the balance between risks and benefits can be hard to quantify.

On one hand, the Internet can help develop social connections and provide an anonymous, confidential space for people to express themselves and find sympathetic ears. An example of this is the "It Gets Better" project, a website targeted to LGBT youth that recently came into focus after the tragic suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi. The site shows the power of the Internet to reach out to individuals facing social isolation and adversity, Boyce says.

On the other hand, the Internet can also be used in less constructive ways. It can be used as a way to bully others and can provide free, immediate access to potentially harmful information and interactions for those who are vulnerable, says Boyce.

But concerns about media romanticizing suicide, presenting self harm as a solution or explicitly detailing methods are not new, with reports of copycat suicides occurring as far back as the 18th century, after a description of a ritualistic suicide was published in the Goethe novel, "The Sorrow of Young Werther," Boyce notes. In fact, the term Werther Effect was coined in 1974 by American sociologist Dave Phillips to describe the phenomenon of suicidal behavior modeled on media portrayals.

The Lancet cites two recent reports from the Australian Mindframe National Media Initiative, which examine the current evidence linking the portrayal of suicide and mental illness. One concluded that "there is a need to err on the side of caution." The other concluded that "presentations of suicide in news and information media can influence copycat acts in particular circumstances."

But, with regard to the Internet, it is "much harder to research than traditional media because it's such a changing medium -- so the evidence base surrounding its potential for positive or negative impacts is much weaker than that for media like newspapers and television," according to Professor Jane Pirkis of the University of Melbourne, coauthor of these reports.

However, the rapid, global spread of news over the Internet highlights the need for reporters to consider their responsibilities when covering stories about suicide, Boyce says, as there's a definite distinction between raising awareness in a positive way and acting as a "vector for dangerous patterns of behavior."

Suicide expert David Gunnell, Professor of Epidemiology at Bristol University, tells The Lancet he believes there is an increasing degree of shared understanding and concern over the issue between suicide prevention experts and the media, yet he emphasizes that the speed and volume of information turnover on the Internet means "regular reminders" are necessary.

Clare Wyllie, The Lancet's Head of Policy and Research, suggests researchers need to study how vulnerable people use the Internet, whey they use it, what helps them and what is destructive.

To this end, Boyce suggests that suicide researchers now need to study the path that people with suicidal thoughts travel online and to work out when and how to intervene.

"It might help if we think of online space not as a separate, virtual world, but as an extension of this one, albeit with different modes and styles of interaction," Boyce concludes.

If you're concerned that someone you care about may be having suicidal thoughts, or you would like more information, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.