THE INTERNET AND SUICIDE
JUNE 26, 2017
The March release of 13 Reasons Why, the Netflix series about youth suicide that has alarmed so many mental health and suicide prevention professionals, demonstrates the power of electronic devices and social media. Many teens and pre-teens are watching the series on their smart phones, some with parental knowledge, but many without. It is no longer necessary to watch shows like 13RW on the family tv set, or go to the local cinema. It is then just a few clicks to go from Netflix streaming to a suicide-related site on the Internet.
Two recent studies and surveys examined similar 21st century technology, in particular the world wide web, and came to some conclusions about how the web deals with suicide, either to prevent it or to encourage it. One, an Australian research project, examines whether someone turning to the Internet is likely to find helpful or harmful information. The results were eye-opening.
- Of 329 relevant websites visited after a Google search, the majority (68%) were about suicide prevention. But a considerable portion of the sites expressed mixed (22%) or neutral (8%) attitudes toward suicide, and 1% were explicitly pro-suicide.
- The majority of adults in the US go to the internet for health information. It is highly likely that a large number of people experiencing suicidal thoughts will have searched, or plan to search the internet for information. So a vulnerable person who goes to the internet to search for information related to suicide may be presented with a range of potentially harmful resources.
- Google has responded. Eight search terms, like “I want to kill myself,” or “…take my own life,” prompted an automatic response from Google encouraging the viewer to seek help, and providing a hotline. (This is in Australia. In the US, the first Google search term does have the national suicide hotline at the top of the list, but the fifth item down is a “fun” test called “Should I Kill Myself – The Test”).
Another study examined the links between online victimization (particularly cyber-bullying) and visits to websites that espouse, and even teach the techniques for self-injury and suicide. Nearly 4000 young respondents in four developed nations participated. It investigated whether a victim of online bullying was more likely to then visit sites which taught self-destructive behaviors. The answer is “yes.”
- Being the victim of online violence is shown to be a precursor to suicide attempts in adolescents. Young participants were asked if they had suffered cyber-bullying, and had they within the last 12 months visited a website that illustrated ways of physically harming oneself and taking one’s own life. 21% reported being the victim of cyber-bullying, and nearly 12% had visited suicide instructional websites.
- Online bullying had clear associations with exposure to self-harm websites in all four countries (The United States, Germany, Finland and the United Kingdom).
- Young women were more likely to have visited self-harm websites than young men. Those who had done so were also more likely to have looked at sexually-explicit material, have provocative social media profiles, and entertain online sexual proposals.
The message should be clear to those living with, working with, or somehow interacting with people who have experienced some of the risk factors of suicidality (divorce, economic downturns, prior attempts, mental health challenges, and easy access to suicide means, among others). If those persons have also communicated warning signs that suicide may be imminent (talking about death, giving away valuables, being angry or anxious, isolating themselves, and other signs of severe depression) it is vital that their Internet usage be monitored. Hopefully, they are visiting helpful websites, but it is almost as easy to stumble upon a website that urges suicide, and teaches the means to do so.