There has been much talk over the last few years about the role the internet can play on reducing (or increasing) suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
Depending on whom you believe, the online world is the channel of choice for a digital generation seeking help or it is a dark place full of those waiting to exploit vulnerable people.
In this piece we’ll look at some of the key issues and describe what we think needs to be done about suicide and the online environment.
Information about suicide
Clearly, some suicide-related material found online can be dangerous when encountered by vulnerable individuals.
The widespread availability of detailed information relating to suicide methods is one of the most problematic areas.
Under UK law an act “capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide or attempted suicide of another” constitutes an offence if it can be proved that the individual concerned “intended to encourage or assist suicide or an attempt at suicide”.
This could potentially include the publication of online material which is intentionally aimed at assisting or encouraging users to attempt suicide. But in practice, there do not appear to have been any prosecutions in the UK for this type of online offence.
The prevalence of websites that are specifically dedicated to encouraging suicide is actually relatively limited.
There are also a range of suicide and self-harm related discussion forums and chatrooms which encourage their users, many of which are likely to be vulnerable to suicide, to talk to each other.
These can act as a valuable emotional support network if the host site provides a safe, supportive and non-judgmental environment where users can openly discuss their feelings, and develop a better understanding of the positive options available to them.
In this respect, some interactions on forums may benefit people vulnerable to suicide in a similar way to Samaritans’ services.
However, forums that are not moderated in any meaningful way clearly have the potential to make people vulnerable to suicide more likely to die:
- Any interactions are usually taking place with people who, unlike Samaritans volunteers, do not have any sort of training and therefore the advice or support given may be misguided or unhelpful even if it is well-intentioned.
- In many forums, interactions are likely to take place with other people who are also struggling with feelings of emotional distress.
- There is a danger that the forums develop into “echo chambers” where everyone talks from the same negative perspective and reinforces their own pessimistic views.
- These online discussions have also been known on occasion to result in people entering into suicide pacts.
- Users may also be exposed to malicious individuals, find out detailed information about suicide methods (including new or rarely-used methods) or take part in discussions that encourage suicidal thoughts.
The demand for suicide information
The prevalence of suicide-related websites and the presence of many suicidal individuals on suicide forums and chatrooms show there is a demand from vulnerable people to obtain more information about suicide, and to express feelings of distress.
This demand is largely unmet by existing suicide prevention organisations across the world, which have traditionally provided their emotional support services via telephone helplines.
In recent years Samaritans have developed new ways for people to access our service including an email service and piloting a text message service.
We are developing plans for an Instant Messaging Service, and believe that a credible and trusted source of online help will provide a constructive alternative to the more damaging content found online.
Banning suicide-related websites
Moving away from whether a Government led ban should be implemented, there is the question of whether such a ban could practically be implemented.
If the government were to pursue a banning/blocking policy they would encounter major challenges in its implementation not least because suicide-related websites hosted abroad are legal in most other countries and the mechanism for blocking access to these sites to UK internet users could be easily circumvented.
A ban on suicide-related websites would also have major implications for freedom of expression, and could unintentionally stifle the legitimate desire of people who are experiencing feelings of distress and despair to express and discuss these feelings with others online.
So what can we do?
- Promote responsible practices
Samaritans believes that organisations with an interest in suicide prevention should instead focus on an approach that is based on:
- Expanding the availability of sources of support to vulnerable people
- Encouraging major organisations such as social networking sites, search engine providers and online news media outlets to develop responsible practices which reduce the availability of harmful content and promote sources of support
Current research on the effect that online interactions can have on people vulnerable to suicide is inadequate, and suicide prevention strategies should aim to commission further research into this area. Samaritans is already a partner in research in this area.
Those of us working to prevent suicides need to recognise that suicide discussion forums are a complex issue and need to discuss such forums in a calm and balanced way.
- Develop new services
The development of new online services staffed by trained volunteers would help to provide safer environments for vulnerable individuals to explore feelings of emotional distress thereby reducing demand for unsupportive or dangerous suicide forums. At Samaritans, we’re exploring our role in providing such services.
- Search engines
We believe that search engine providers have a corporate social responsibility to ensure that credible sources of support are promoted when people enter suicide-related terms into search engines.
There is also more that could be done to reduce unhelpful ‘auto complete’ functions on partially-entered search terms.
We have good relationships with some search engine providers but there is more that they, and we, can do on this. There are also some who have not really stepped up to the plate on this issue.
Google provides contact details for Samaritans when searching for certain keywords
- Social networking
Samaritans has been working with some social networking sites to make sure that people who are distressed are referred to sources of support. But there is more that can be done on this front, and we need social networking sites to take on a lead role to protect their vulnerable users.