Learning about Suicide Online

Where do young people go to get information about suicide?  

Given the popularity of the Internet and the instant access provided by smartphones, tablets, and mini-notebook computers, most youths go online for information on the topics they consider important.  According to one U.K. survey, seventy percent of young people between the age of nine and sixteen spend at least ninety minutes online daily.  But what about young people who are feeling suicidal and go online for information?

Many suicide information organizations have set up websites providing support and information about suicide as well as where to go for help in the community.  Young adults often value online groups where they can get help to cope with their problems.   For young people who spend much of their time online, these  kind of support services can be literally lifesaving. 

But there are online hazards as well for young people thinking of killing themselves.   Online groups can provide advice on suicide methods instead and there have been cases in which suicide voyeurs actually encourage suicidal people to  kill themselves.   Chat rooms and bulletin boards for people who self-harm can provide people on the edge with a sense of community that can make self-harm seem more feasible.   The recent increase in self-harm, especially among adolescent girls may be linked to the contagion effect that can arise from these kind of interactions.

A new research study published in the journal Crisis takes a  look at different online resources available for young people considering suicide and the kind of message they are sending.   Using common search terms that young people might use to find information on suicide, self-harm, and depression, over three hundred websites that can be potentially accessed by young people seeking information were identified.  According to researchers at the Department of Psychiatry at  Oxford University and the Department of Psychology at Bath, the results showed that, while 56.1 percent of sites provided advice on how to get help,  an additional 15.8 percent of sites gave specific advice on how to commit suicide or self-harm.    An additional  7 percent of these sites provided active encouragement, and 20.7 percent provided  images of suicide.  Some of the images were quite graphic including bleeding from wounds.   Nearly a fifth of all sites (19 percent) provided forums where people could share stories about self-harm. 

Among the search engines used, Bing was the most likely to link to sites providing advice self-harm sites or containing graphic images.  Bing was also the most likely engine to link to sites encouraging self-harm (11.8 percent) while Google was the least likely (5.2 percent).

Based on these results, the researchers recommend that questions about Internet use be included when assessing young people at risk.  Parents,  teachers, and mental health professionals also need to be more vigilant about suicide issues and the kind of information that vulnerable adolescents and young adults might be getting online.




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