Social Media, an Ally in Suicide Prevention?

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How does Facebook respond to posts containing suicidal behavior? And does suicide shared on social media trigger suicide contagion?

Social media have become platforms where users can seek empathy and support. Many can experience that likes and positive comments provide one with a sense of validation and self-worth. People struggling with mental health can also gain a feeling of belonging and inclusion by joining groups which meet their needs. One can safely express personal sorrows or predicaments.

There are also people in desperate situations who post messages as a cry for help, and some even post horrifying good-bye notes. The article Suicide Announcement on Facebook discusses the potential effects of suicidal notes. One of the article’s main purposes is to draw attention to social media’s potential for suicide prevention due to users’ spontaneous reaction to others’ suffering (1)Ruder, T., Hatch, G., Ampanozi, G. & Thali, M. (2011). Suicide announcement on Facebook. Crisis The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 32(5), 280-282. https://doi.org/10.1027/0227-5910/a000086. The article identifies that suicidal behavior, tendencies and notes generally do not go unnoticed by other users. They try to provide comfort and intervene (2)Ruder, T., Hatch, G., Ampanozi, G. & Thali, M. (2011). Suicide announcement on Facebook. Crisis The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 32(5), 280-282. https://doi.org/10.1027/0227-5910/a000086.

To accommodate the users’ helping behavior, Facebook and Instagram are equipped with useful tools for suicide and self-harm prevention. On Facebook for instance, users have been able for more than 10 years to seek for specialized help for themselves or other users who publish content pointing to self-harm or severe depression (3)‘Suicide Prevention’. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/safety/wellbeing/suicideprevention. The platform disposes of an impressive number of prevention-trained human moderators (4)Constine, John. (2017). ‘Facebook rolls out AI to detect suicidal posts before they’re reported’. November 27. Retrieved from: https://techcrunch.com/2017/11/27/facebook-ai-suicide-prevention.

At the same time, Facebook allows discussions about suicide and mental health for the purpose of increasing awareness. However, it prohibits discourse pointing to the «glorification» of suicide and related content (5)‘Suicide Prevention’. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/safety/wellbeing/suicideprevention. Since 2017, Facebook has been using artificial intelligence technology to help predict when users may be suicidal by scanning troubling posts and hence detecting patterns of suicidal thoughts. When imminent danger is spotted, a member of the Community Operations team may contact local authorities (6)Card, Catherine. (2018). ‘How Facebook AI Helps Suicide Prevention’. Sep 10. Retrieved from: https://about.fb.com/news/2018/09/inside-feed-suicide-prevention-and-ai/.

Suicide Contagion

However, there remains a concern with the fact that posts including suicidal behavior on social media may lead to copycat suicides. A copycat suicide, also known as ‘suicide contagion’ or ‘the Werther effect’ is «an emulation of another suicide that the person attempting suicide knows about it either from local knowledge or media» (7)The Free Dictionary. Retrieved from: https://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Copycat+suicide.

For instance, there were found strong links between the mass media showing the details of Robin Williams’s suicide in 2014 and the increase in the suicide rate among male adults in the months following the death of the famous comedian. The main proof of copycat suicide consisted in the victims emulating the way in which the famous actor chose to die (8)‘Experts Fear Copycat Suicides’. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mft6MARtxCk.

Then, in 2017, America was once again shocked when a similar situation took place among teenagers after the release of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.  The experts noticed a glorification of suicide among teens, a phenomenon comparable with the actions of the series’ female protagonist, Hannah Baker (9)’13 Reasons Why Glorifying Suicide?’ Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mnH37AmtoE&list=PLJT3v7zSpNqlAVfUaendF-lHQF4Cw3zm6&index=2.

There is no clear answer to the question whether suicide on social media may have a copycat effect on the more vulnerable users such as those struggling with mental disorders. It appears that there is a lack of empirical investigation whether the Werther effect can be caused by social-media conversations on celebrity suicides. However, some sources explain that copycat suicides are a bump in the statistics and not an increase in the suicide rate. This phenomenon, called suicide cluster, occurs because «the individuals who may be influenced by these stories, are already in a vulnerable state» (10)Olson, R. (2013). ‘Suicide Contagion & Suicide Clusters’. March 26. Retrieved from: https://www.suicideinfo.ca/local_resource/suicidecontagion/.

Research is also scarce concerning whether there is a Werther effect caused by suicidal behavior on social media shared by users who aren’t famous. According to some studies, the copycat phenomenon is less likely to occur due to one’s exposure to social media suicide cases than due to exposure to such incidents reported by the mass media. The principal explanation is that the users have a limited number of online friends as well as a fair understanding of their lives (11)Ruder, T., Hatch, G., Ampanozi, G. & Thali, M. (2011). Suicide announcement on Facebook. Crisis The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 32(5), 280-282. https://doi.org/10.1027/0227-5910/a000086.

Sources indicate that, when it comes to teenagers and young adults, those with mental health problems are at a higher risk for doing self-harm and committing suicide. Although there are strong links between their mental health problems and social media use, the experts explain that the causes are unclear and oftentimes complex (12)Cammarata, Christina M. ‘About Teen Suicide’. Retrieved from: https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/suicide.html.

By raising awareness and paying attention to others one can possibly prevent suicides. Whether at a social event or on social media, the other’s pain always finds a way to come through to those around. Many show they care and lend a hand. One of the main problems remains whether we are well equipped to offer the right kind of help at the right time.

Dette innlegget er 1 år gammelt. Informasjon i innlegget kan være utdatert.

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