Social media and suicide

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Social media and suicide is a phenomenon concerning social media's influence on suicide-related behavior. Suicide is one of the top leading causes of death worldwide, and is one of the top five causes of death in adolescents.[1][2][3] Globally, suicides account for 50 percent of all violent deaths among men and 71 percent for women. Despite suicide prevention programs, therapy, and pharmacological treatments, the suicide rate is either increasing or remaining high around the world.[4] Suicide has been identified not only as an individual phenomenon, but also as being influenced by social and environmental factors.[3] Additionally, there is increasing evidence that the Internet and social media can influence suicide-related behavior.[5] As the Internet has become more ingrained in people's everyday lives, the mental and emotional damages of an individual increases as individuals are seeing an edited version of how life is supposed to look.[6] Social media has become a commonly used part of the Internet that has expanded exponentially throughout the years. There are a variety of sources that are accessible to the public in various forms. Sites include Facebook, Instagram, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, Snapchat, TikTok, VSCO, and more. These platforms were intended to allow people to connect in a virtual way, but can lead to cyberbullying, insecurity, emotional distress, and ultimately suicide.

Bullying, whether on social media or elsewhere, physical or not, significantly increases victims' risk of suicidal behavior.[7][8] Since social media was introduced some people have taken their lives as a result of cyberbullying, including people who have live-streamed their suicide through the various social platforms.[9][10] Suicide rates among teenagers has seen a drastic increase from 2007 to 2017 as social media has become a prevalent way of life.[11]

Another risk factor may be media accounts of suicide that romanticize or dramatize the description of suicidal deaths, possibly leading to an increased number of suicides.[12] The media tends to popularize videos and social media posts to inform the country of the rising trouble, which may create a popular appeal to the young and immature minds of teenagers. Social media could provide higher risks with the promotion of different kinds of pro-suicidal sites, message boards, chat rooms, and forums.[13] Also, the Internet not only reports suicide incidents but documents suicide methods (for example, suicide pacts, an agreement between two or more people to kill themselves at a particular time and often by the same lethal means). The role the Internet plays, particularly social media, in suicide-related behavior is a topic of growing interest.

Social media risks[edit]

There is substantial evidence that the Internet and social media can influence suicide-related behavior. Such evidence includes an increase of exposure to graphic content as well as the opportunity for cyberbullying to occur. Over the past ten years, cyberbullying has increasingly led to self-harm and suicide. An April 2020 study done by The National Center for Health Statistics (NPHC) revealed that suicide is the second leading cause of death of US citizens ages 10–34. Although this study does not directly state the cause of these suicides, it can be alluded that cyberbullying was a potential cause.[weasel words] NPHC had previously done a study in 2018 that showed that adolescents under the age of 25 that were victims of cyberbullying became twice as likely to commit suicide or cause various forms of self harm. Overall, teen suicide rates have increased within the past decade. This is a highly considerable public health problem, having over 40,000 suicide deaths in the United States and nearly one million suicide deaths worldwide occur yearly.[14]

Social media’s influence on suicide[edit]

The media may portray suicidal behavior or language which can potentially influence people to act on these suicidal tendencies.[15][16][17] This may include news reports of actual suicides that have occurred or television shows and films that reenact suicides.

Some organisations have proposed guidelines about how the media should report suicide.[16][17][18][19][20] There is evidence that compliance with the guidelines varies.[17][21] Some research has found that it is unclear whether the guidelines have successfully reduced the number of suicides.[16] Other research has found that the guidelines have worked in some cases.[22][23]

Impact of pro-suicidal sites, message boards, chat rooms and forums[edit]

Social media platforms have transformed traditional methods of communication by allowing the instantaneous and interactive sharing of information created and controlled by individuals, groups, organizations, and governments.[24] As of the third quarter of 2015, Facebook had 1.55 billion monthly active users.[25] An immense quantity of information on the topic of suicide is available on the Internet and via social media. The information available on social media on the topic of suicide can influence suicidal behavior, both negatively and positively.

The social cognitive theory plays a vital role in suicide attempts influenced through social media. This theory is demonstrated when one is influenced by what they see through various processes that form into modeled behaviors. This can be shown when people post their suicide attempts online or promote suicidal behavior in general.

Contributors to these social media platforms may also exert peer pressure and encourage others to take their own lives, idolize those who have killed themselves, and facilitate suicide pacts. These pro-suicidal sites reported the following. For example, on a Japanese message board in 2008, it was shared that people can kill themselves using hydrogen sulfide gas. Shortly after 220 people attempted suicide in this way, and 208 were successful.[26] Biddle et al.[27] conducted a systematic Web search of 12 suicide-associated terms (e.g., suicide, suicide methods, how to kill yourself, and best suicide methods) to analyze the search results and found that pro-suicide sites and chat rooms that discussed general issues associated with suicide most often occurred within the first few hits of a search.[28] also conducted a study that examined suicide-related sites that can be found using Internet search engines. Of 373 website hits, 31% were suicide neutral, 29% were anti-suicide, and 11% were pro-suicide. Together, these studies have shown that obtaining pro-suicide information on the Internet, including detailed information on suicide methods, is very easy.[24]

While social media has been prevalent in young adult suicide, some young adults find comfort and solace through these platforms. Young adults are making connections with people in like situations that is helping them feel less lonely.[29] Although, the public opinion is that message boards are harmful, the following studies show how they point to suicide prevention and have positive influences. A study using content analysis analyzed all of the postings on the AOL Suicide Bulletin Board over 11 months and concluded that most contributions contained positive, empathetic, and supportive postings.[30] Then, a multi-method study was able to demonstrate that the users of such forums experience a great deal of social support and only a small amount of social strain. Lastly, in survey participants were asked to assess the extent of their suicidal thoughts on a 7-level scale (0, absolutely no suicidal thoughts, to 7, very strong suicidal thoughts) for the time directly before their first forum visit and at the time of the survey.[30] The study found a significant reduction after using the forum. The study however cannot conclude the forum is the only reason for the decrease. Together, these studies show how forums can reduce the number of suicides.

An example of how social media can play a role in suicide is that of a male adolescent who arrived at the emergency department with his parents after suspected medication ingestion in which he attempted to overdose. Beforehand he had sent an ex-girlfriend a Snapchat picture of himself holding a bottle of acetaminophen, which was forwarded to the young male's parents. This picture was used by medical experts to establish a time of his ingestion, oral N-acetylcysteine was discovered and he was brought to a pediatric care facility, where he had an uneventful recovery and psychiatric evaluation.[31]

In 2013, the main cause of nine teen suicides was due to hateful anonymous messages on Ask.fm.[32]

Cyberbullying and suicide[edit]

Cyberbullying has received considerable attention as a possible cause of suicide.[33] It has been deemed a major health concern for affected teens and major health threat to those affected by the psychological trauma inflicted by perpetrators on social media.[34] While there isn’t one Federal Law that is specific to cyberbullying, 48 states have laws against cyberbullying or online harassment with 44 of those states having criminal sanctions within the laws. Many states have enhanced their harassment laws to include online harassment.[35] Criminal harassment statutes often provide a basis for bringing charges in severe cases, and more serious criminal charges have been brought in cases where evidence indicates a resultant suicide or other tragic consequences. Civil remedies have been sought in many cases where criminal liability was difficult to prove.[36]

In a Florida case, two preteens were arrested after they were accused of cyberbullying another female student. The victim killed herself and investigators asserted that the suicide was prompted by cyberbullying perpetrated by the two preteen girls who were later charged with cyberstalking.[37]

In 2006, 13 year old Megan Meier hung herself in her bedroom closet following a series of messages on MySpace and AOL messenger from a friends mother and her 18 year old associate posing to be a boy named “Josh.” The mother, Lori Drew, faced federal charges on cyberbullying and was later acquitted.[38]

Sadie Riggs, a Pennsylvania teen, killed herself in 2015 allegedly because of online bullying and harassment at school on her appearance. Sadie's aunt, Sarah Smith, contacted various social media companies, police, and Sadie's school in hopes to make the bullying stop. In desperation, Smith went as far as to break Sadie's phone, in her presence, in an attempt to stop the bullying. No charges were ever filed against any alleged suspect.[39]

In the death of Phoebe Prince, prosecutors initially charged each of the six teens responsible for her death with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, criminal harassment, disturbing a school assembly and a civil rights violation with a bodily injury resulting. The felony civil rights violation with bodily injury alone carries a 10-year maximum sentence. Some of the other accused teens also faced the violation of civil rights with bodily injury charges as well as statutory rape and stalking. The teens later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor criminal harassment with the more serious charges dropped.[40]

Media contagion effect[edit]

Suicide contagion can be viewed within the larger context of behavioral contagion, which has been described as a situation in which the same behavior spreads quickly and spontaneously through a group. Persons most susceptible to suicide contagions are those under 25 years of age.[41] A recent study by Dunlop et al.[42] specifically examined possible contagion effects on suicidal behavior via the Internet and social media. Of 719 individuals aged 14 to 24 years, 79% reported being exposed to suicide-related content through family, friends, and traditional news media such as newspapers, and 59% found such content through Internet sources.[43] These information may pose a hazard for vulnerable groups by influencing decisions to die by suicide. In particular, interactions via chat rooms or discussion forums may foster peer pressure to die by suicide, encourage users to idolize those who have died by suicide, or facilitate suicide pacts.[43] Recently there has been a trend in creating memorial social media pages in honor of a deceased person. In New Zealand, a memorial page was made after a person committed suicide, this resulted in the suicide of 8 other persons thereafter, which further shows the power of the media contagion effect.[44]

Suicide notes[edit]

It has generally been found that those who post suicide notes online tend to not receive help.[45]

Several notable cases support this argument:

  • Kevin Whitrick and Abraham K. Biggs webcast both of their suicides. "I am going to leave this for whoever stumbles across my bookmarks later on."
  • Paul Zolezzi indicated via a Facebook update his intent to commit suicide.[46]
  • In 2010, John Patrick Bedell left a Wikipedia user page and YouTube videos interpreted by some as a suicide note; the former was deleted by Wikipedia administrators.[47]
  • Joe Stack also posted a suicide note online.[48]
  • Chris McKinstry, an AI researcher, committed suicide after posting a note to both his blog and the Joel on Software off-topic forum explaining the reasons for his demise.
  • A girl who attended a Louisville-area high school posted a video suicide note and then killed herself back in 2014. The girl did not receive any help prior to her suicide, leading H. Eric Sparks, director of the American School Counselor Association, to say that troubled students should be directed to help hotlines or to trusted authorities to seek intervention as quickly as possible.[49]

Suicide pacts[edit]

A suicide pact is an agreement between two or more people to die by suicide at a particular time and often by the same lethal means.[50][51] Suicide pacts are found to be rare. Traditional suicide pacts have typically developed among individuals who know each other, such as a couple of friends. A suicide pact that has been formed or developed in some way through the use of the Internet is a cyber suicide pact.[52] A primary difference between cybersuicide pacts and traditional suicide pacts is that these pacts are usually formed among strangers.[50] They use online chat rooms and virtual bulletin boards and forums as an unmediated avenue to share their feelings with other like-minded individuals, which can be easier than talking about such thoughts and feelings in person.[43]

The first documented use of the Internet to form a suicide pact was reported in Japan in 2000. It has now become a more common form of suicide in Japan, where the suicide rate increased from 34 suicides in 2003 to 91 suicides in 2005. South Korea now has one of the world's highest suicide rates (24.7/100 000 in 2005), and evidence exists that cyber suicide pacts may account for almost one-third of suicides in that country.[43] Suicide pacts are also in the United States. In April 2018, Macon Middle School, a middle school in North Carolina, became aware of a group on social media called "Edgy" or "Edgy Fan Page 101" in which this group came up with a suicide pact and had suicide ideations. The middle school contacted the parents and informed them to look into their children's social media pages and talk with them about the dangers of a group like this.[53]

Gerald Krein[54] and William Francis Melchert-Dinkel were accused of arranging internet suicide pacts.

Interventions[edit]

Suicide intervention on social media has saved many lives on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. All of the aforementioned companies have slightly different ways to report posts that may seem suicidal.

Facebook[edit]

Facebook, assisted by, among a handful of other experts, Dr. Dan Reidenburg of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education—"uses an algorithm to track down buzzwords and phrases that are commonly associated with suicide" and has intervened in over 3,500 cases, according to company reports. The algorithm reportedly tracks buzzwords and phrases associated with suicide and an alert is sent to Facebook's Safety Center.[55]

"The technology itself isn’t going to send somebody to their house. A person at Facebook would have to do that…"

–Dr. Dan Reidenburg[55]

Twitter[edit]

  • Demi Moore and her followers intervened to stop a suicide that had been announced on Twitter.[56]
  • Twitter followers of Chicago rapper CupcakKe alerted authorities after the rapper posted ominous phrases onto Twitter. She later thanked all of her followers after receiving help.[57]

Forums[edit]

  • A German was prevented from killing himself after Spanish internet users saw him announcing his decision.[58]

Discussion and support groups[edit]

Some online groups, such as alt.suicide.holiday, have emerged as discussion and support groups for suicidal individuals. Research indicates that providing more online support for suicidal people would be more effective than shutting down pro-suicide websites.[59] The Defense Centers of Excellence have expressed interest in using social media for suicide prevention.[60] Facebook groups have sometimes been set up for suicide prevention purposes,[61] including one that attracted 47,000 members.[62] Although many teens and preteens encounter suicide-related posts from peers on different social media apps, they also encounter suicide prevention hotlines and website links as well.[63]

SAMHSA's Suicide Prevention Lifeline operates on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.[64] The American Foundation For Suicide Prevention is trying to understanding and preventing suicide through research, education, and advocacy.

Reidenberg, the executive director of the United States-based prevention organization Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), has become very involved in responding to suicidal messages. Facebook, the world's largest social network, has now implemented a direct intervention method. 25 of the 50 American states, when a user posts a message on Facebook containing a phrase that its algorithms flag as indicating suicidal thoughts or intentions, a banner pops up on the user's page. If the user's page is flagged the user is provided with the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and given tips and links to support videos aligned with best prevention practices. Suicide is still a worldwide problem today and social media does not help.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]

  • Luxton, David D.; June, Jennifer D.; Fairall, Jonathan M. (2012-5). "Social Media and Suicide: A Public Health Perspective". American Journal of Public Health. 102(Suppl 2): S195–S200. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2011.300608. ISSN 0090-0036. PMC 3477910. PMID 22401525.</ref>
  • Hawton, K. (2002-12-14). "Influences of the media on suicide". BMJ. 325 (7377): 1374–1375. doi:10.1136/bmj.325.7377.1374. PMC 1124845. PMID 12480830.
  • Liu, Xingyun; Huang, Jiasheng; Yu, Nancy Xiaonan; Li, Qing; Zhu, Tingshao (2020-04-28). "Mediation Effect of Suicide-Related Social Media Use Behaviors on the Association Between Suicidal Ideation and Suicide Attempt: Cross-Sectional Questionnaire Study". Journal of Medical Internet Research. 22 (4): e14940. doi:10.2196/14940. ISSN 1438-8871.