We need to talk about suicide, but it's not a social-media conversation
So far, the discussion has focused on the part social media played in their deaths. There has been very little thought given to its role in the aftermath – but it is in the wake of high-profile suicides like these that social media is arguably at its most potent.
In addition to the six Facebook pages dedicated to the memory of Erin Gallagher, there are six for Ciara Pugsley and more than 100 dedicated to Amanda Todd, with 1.5 million likes on one alone.
It’s understandable that family and friends want to commemorate a lost loved one in the forum where so much of their life was played out. The motives behind creating a Facebook tribute page are usually good, but they can have serious negative consequences.
I don’t think this kind of online eulogising of teenagers who took their own lives – and demonising of their alleged tormentors – is healthy.
For a start, there are obvious implications for the physical and mental wellbeing of those accused of bullying.
Less apparent, but no less serious, is the risk of what the Samaritans calls “social contagion” – the phenomenon whereby one highly visible suicide is seen to “give permission” to others, sometimes leading to what it terms a “clustering effect”. To combat this, the organisation has issued guidelines for the media in reporting on suicides. These include: avoid simplistic explanations; don’t give details; and don’t overstate the “positive” results of a suicide.
Journalists who write about this issue are aware they walk a tightrope. On the one hand, sensitive coverage that follows these guidelines can help tackle the stigma that surrounds suicide. On the other, a few ill-chosen words or details can have a profoundly negative impact on vulnerable readers.
But unfortunately, no such guidelines apply online. A study carried out in 2006 in New Zealand, which has the second-highest youth suicide rate in the OECD, found that Bebo and text messaging contributed to a spate of eight teen suicides in an 18-month period.
It would be wrong to imply that an otherwise healthy teenager might be compelled to suicide just by reading about it. But there is evidence to suggest that, against a backdrop of other issues, the act itself can sometimes be highly impulsive.
In the 1990s, researchers in Houston, Texas asked 153 people, aged 13 to 34, who had survived a serious suicide attempt, to estimate the amount of time between making the decision that they wanted to die, and actually attempting it. Seventy per cent of the time, the gap was less than an hour. In one in four cases, it was barely five minutes.
There is an urgent need for more openness about teenage suicide – but it needs to happen in a context that doesn’t glamorise it, or suggest that a suicide is necessarily the outcome of bullying.