This page looks at what has variously been characterised as
cybersuicide, suicide surfing, exit chat rooms and e-suicide.
It covers –
- what is cybersuicide?
and sensationalism – questions about the number of
sites, their nature and their impact
circuses and moral panics? - cybersuicide as a media
phenomenon and focus for social anxieties or discontents
following pages consider regulation (including special legislation
in Australia) and studies.
The note supplements the discussion elsewhere on this site
regarding censorship &
free speech, usenet, chat
rooms, online memorialisation/mourning
and life online.
Policymakers, pundits and the media periodically discover
'internet suicide sites' and chatrooms at home and abroad.
That ongoing rediscovery is marked by -
of alarm, typically about an "alarming rise" in
the number of deaths (or merely number of sites)
for the strengthening of existing restrictions and establishment
of new restrictions that are specific to the net
that the net is uniquely powerful and that such sites are
associated with a range of disorders or pseudo-disorders
such as 'internet addiction'
of the lives of those who have completed or attempted suicide
- often with only a peripheral connection to the net - and
more recently to other people online who have "preyed
on them" as "peddlers of death" or "psychopaths"
concentration on "the depressed and disturbed"
(or the exotic, such as suicide pacts in Japan and South
Korea) rather than those people whose demise is perceived
to be "respectable" because they are in intolerable
physical pain through for example cancer.
have questioned much of the anxiety, noting the paucity of
major studies and hard data, or questioning the efficacy of
some legislative fixes. Some have commented that the net is
arguably less powerful than traditional media in romanticising
death or promoting emulation. Others have
What has been bundled as cybersuicide encompasses a range
of online activity, including -
sources about religious, ethical or broader cultural aspects
of suicide. Some are discrete sites or pages; others form
part of academic, personal or commercial collections of
resources regarding individual philosophers such as David
Hume and Aquinas, the relationship between the individual
and the state, the literary imagination or other matters
technical resources, including guides (of varying accuracy)
about using and obtaining poisons or other tools for felo-de-se.
One academic paper thus announces "Want to know how
to behead yourself? Just go online"
online content that provides psychological guidance
chatrooms - virtual meeting-places in which participants
can exchange text/other messages on a near real-time basis.
of static publications and fora about suicide has taken two
Some critics have argued that information should not be available
online, as online access supposedly lacks the safeguards provided
by retailers, librarians or other intermediaries encountered
offline. Others claim that information online is likely to
be inaccurate or without context, for example not juxtaposed
with texts on the sacredness of life.
That has been characterised as essentially an argument against
ease of access: the same information (accurate or otherwise)
is available offline in bookstores, highschool classrooms,
newspapers and biopics about pop figures.
Calls for 'quarantining' online information have been dismissed
as unfeasible, given -
global nature of the web
about what should be taken offline or restricted through
an age-based access mechanism
apparent low priority of most societies - or merely most
governments - in expunging information about basic chemistry
or ethical issues.
A somewhat more serious argument is the claim that the interaction
of people in chatrooms - and indeed in usenet and email newsgroup
postings - is more potent than merely reading a few pages
of Pavese, Plath, Camus or Goethe. Some vulnerable people
may, it is claimed, be led astray or egged on by others.
Australian academic Pierre Baume has thus warned about 'bragging'
in such fora as a driver for suicidal behaviour among young
people, particularly those whose most intimate interaction
occurs via a keyboard.
statistics and sensationalism
One reason for caution in accepting or dismissing such claims
is the paucity of detailed and rigorous studies. There have
been a handful of academic papers, most - as discussed below
- drawing on tiny populations and offering little evidence
How many 'suicide sites' are there? How many people are using
them? What are the demographics?
Answers about the number of sites vary widely: we have encountered
estimates of 900 sites and estimates of over 20,000, although
counts are blurred by disagreement regarding what constitutes
a suicide site or a suicide-related forum. It would be surprising
if, among the millions of sites
and billion plus pages on the net, there wasn't content devoted
to suicide methods. Commercial metrics services have not been
interested in identifying such content or chat.
It is thus difficult to substantiate hyperbole such as
Internet is packed with what are called suicide sites, where
those with the urge to end it all can find the best way
to go about doing themselves in and can even find buddies
so they don't have to perish alone.
So much for Dorothy Parker's advice that
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live
rough counts in 1997, 2000 and 2004 suggested that there were
in fact more sites, more web pages and more support networks
dedicated to helping potential suicides (and, as importantly,
their families/acquaintances) than sites urging people to
shuffle off the mortal coil.
Detailed figures about use of suicide sites and fora such
as the Alt.Suicide.Holiday (ASH)
usenet group simply are not available.
Has access to the net - and to chat rooms or 'exit' sites
- resulted in significant increases in the number of attempted
and completed suicides?
One answer is that no-one knows. Rigorous large-scale information
about a remaining great taboo is still lacking in most societies
and analysts have rightly warned about confusing correlation
and causation in what is often complex behaviour. It is difficult
to discern a clear influence, in contrast to the so-called
Werther Effect that is associated with the demise of adults
younger people emulating their peers after suicides publicised
in print, broadcast or by word of mouth.
For the historian some of the recent claims about cybersuicide
are strongly reminiscent of 1980s hype about heavy
metal, with susceptible teens being led on a downward
spiral to despair by listening to headbangers in black tshirts
and purple lipstick.
In Australia there is no obvious correlation between increased
access to the net and the incidence of suicide.
A 2004 note
by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on Suicides: Recent
Trends, Australia for example indicated that there had
not been significant growth from 1993 to 2003. Recent years
have shown a slight decline in the number of deaths. As for
the period since 1921 most suicide deaths occurred in males
aged between 20 and 49 years. Favoured methods of departure
were hanging (45%), motor vehicle exhaust (19%), poisoning
by drugs (13%) and firearms (9%). The American Foundation
for Suicide Prevention reported that 32,637 people died by
suicide in the US in 2005, the third leading cause of death
for people aged 15 to 24 and fourth leading cause for those
in the 18 to 65 chort.
Have researchers identified particular susceptibilities?
One striking feature of the literature about cybersuicide
is its thinness and - in welcome contrast to far-reaching
claims by proponents of internet addictive disorder - its
modesty. There is little detailed writing; most citations
are to a handful of letters or articles rather than in-depth
research. The conclusions drawn by the authors are often unexceptional.
The much-cited 1999 AJP Letter
by Alao Adekola, Jennifer Yolles & Wendy Armenta on Cybersuicide:
The Internet and Suicide thus reports
on two suicide attempts in which information about the methods
used were obtained from the Internet. Both cases illustrate
the danger of having access to information by means of the
Internet. Such information may prove detrimental to vulnerable
psychiatric patients. ...
Mental health care providers should counsel patients about
alternatives to surfing the Web at times of crisis. Help
may be available by calling crisis lines, clinicians, friends,
or family members.
the same might be said about the dangers of access to libraries
or - given concerns about legitimation and emulation - to
reporting in the mass media and in novels and videos.
Cybersuicide or Werther-Effect online: Suicide chatrooms or
forums in the World Wide Web paper by Katja Becker, Mahha
El-Faddagh & Martin Schmidt similarly comments that
in the mass media is of utmost importance in suicide prevention
with regard to copying suicide methods. The internet, and
the opportunities it provides for anonymous exchanges of
thoughts poses additional risks for vulnerable adolescents
with suicidal ideas. Chatrooms provide a space for adolescents
- whether suicidal or interested in suicide - to exchange
their thoughts, and may therefore allow risks and fantasies
to be reduced, or may possibly increase the desire to commit
studies are necessary to document internet media effects.
Physicians, psychotherapists, and parents should be informed
about suicide web pages and chatrooms. Internet-specific
media guidelines, internationally valid laws, and suitable
online information channels should be established.
net has, however, received little attention in government
mental health and suicide prevention strategies.
The recent National Suicide Prevention Strategy for England
for example simply failed to mention the internet, with officials
subsequently responding to media brouhaha with a statement
about plans to
the legality and feasibility of censuring websites which
promote or encourage people to take their own lives.
World Health Organization estimates that around one million
people die from suicide each year (one death every 40 seconds),
with a global mortality rate of 16 per 100,000. The WHO claims
that suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide over the
past 45 years, arguably a reflection of both affluence and
of the weakening of taboos against reporting attempted/completed
suicide. Its aggregation of national figures is here.
Other base data is -
media circuses and moral panics?
One journalist commented to us that "e-death is going
to be funkier than kiddie porn and can be discussed over dinner
without making your guests lose their lasagne".
Media coverage has centred on
existence of online suicide instructions and their potential
that chat rooms include "encouragers" (ie participants
goading the unhappy into suicide but not joining them in
suicide pacts, with claims that groups connect online for
organisation of "mass suicides".
That coverage has featured lines such as
burn out in embers of online death pacts"
"moral rape" by internet "psychopaths"
"suicide sites are as dangerous and pernicious as child
porn sites are to young children"
"They met in an Internet chat room, engaged in bleak
dialogues, and planned a mass suicide for Valentine's Day"
the more modest "Evidence exists that at least one person
downloaded carbon monoxide poisoning instructions from the
[ASH] site before killing herself".
a 2005 UK House of Commons debate an MP commended a colleague
case of Sarah who, after discussing suicide in an internet
chat room, purchased a book from Amazon.com on how to commit
suicide and subsequently killed herself. My hon. Friend,
in his early-day motion, called for legal action to be taken
against those who write, publish or sell material or distribute
information on the internet about how to commit suicide.
I echo that call. ...
Our regional newspaper, the Lancashire Evening Post,
and its campaign "Stop the peddlers of death"
have highlighted this and other tragic cases of suicide.
Does my hon. Friend agree that libraries that stock manuals
to encourage suicide should remove them from their shelves
John Connolly fretted that
men spend a lot of time surfing the net and they are also
those at most risk of suicide … We know that if vulnerable
people get into these sites it can easily tip them over
the edge. Some of them are sick and bizarre but for a lonely
and isolated young person they can give a sense of credibility
and recognition. They normalise suicide and that is unhealthy.
Since 2000 most attention has involved online suicide pacts,
particularly in parts of Asia with a tradition of multiple
suicides - "Every night across Japan, hundreds of people
meet on-line, looking for strangers to die with".
Pacts are not new; they have involved figures such as Heinrich
von Kleist and as Sundararajan Rajagopal noted in a thin 2005
BMJ item on 'Suicide Pacts and internet' a suicide
pact occurs roughly once a month in the UK, typically involving
people well known to each other, mostly spouses, most of
them childless. Most of the victims belong to social classes
I, II, and III, and a noteworthy proportion work in professions
allied to medicine.
prevalence of completed pacts involving more than two people
and the net is unclear, although our survey of newspaper coverage
in 2005 suggests that outside East Asia it has only a curiosity
value ... most people are still dying alone.
In 2006 Japanese police announced that, during 2005, 91 people
had "committed suicide together after meeting via the
web". A frame of reference is that over 94 people take
their own lives in Japan every day.
A range of services are available - online and off - for people
who are depressed, desperate or otherwise at risk of suicide.
In Australia two telephone services are -
- 131 114
Crisis Line - 9331 2000
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