Jerry O.: Effect of Social Media on Suicides

The number of suicides that occur worldwide stands at almost 800,000 yearly, making it the 17th leading cause of death in 2015 (World Health Organisation, 2015) and with the increase in the publicity of suicides, it is now a major global health issue.  The relationship between suicide and the internet and in particular social media is very complex and various researchers have tried to find out if social media hinders or encourages death by suicide.  Studies have shown that even though there is no direct link between social media and suicide, there is some degree of interaction between them.

Image Credit: http://screenrant.com/suicide-squad-skrillex-rick-ross-song/
The social media is a hub of information and one can easily find information on any subject simply by typing the search words and suicide is not an exception.  There is a huge repository of information on suicide on the internet and there are many pro-suicide chat rooms and forums which provide very detailed information about suicide and even the methods that can be used.  There are so many ways by which social media can contribute to an increase in the tendency to commit suicide.

The nature of human interactions is such that the chunk of our deductions and understanding of people’s behaviour comes from things they do not say.  That is to say human communication relies more on nonverbal communication that the actual exchange of words.  The heart and soul of our interactions are the gestures, eye contact, tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and posture and so on.  We are able to fully understand what a person is saying by comparing the words they use with the nonverbal signs that we observe, we can tell if a person is excited, sad, hiding something or if they are relaxed.

Image Credit: https://safeguarde.com/spy-phone-social-networking-cause-teen-suicide/
On social media however, these nonverbal signs are replaced by smileys and emoticons so they may as well be absent because you cannot actually tell that the person sending you a grinning smiley is actually grinning, for all you know they may be wearing a scowl on their face.  Social media gives people the opportunity to be anything they want to be; they may be depressed in real life and be very chatty online, they may be crying and be using all the happy emoticons and smiley.  So, unless a person opens up to you and shares their pain you will not know they have any unlike in face-to-face interactions where you can pick up that someone is being bothered by something and they are more likely to open up if someone asks them.  Likewise, there is no way to tell if a person is contemplating suicide via social media interactions unless they tell you because online interactions are grossly lacking in the nonverbal cues we already mentioned.

Social Media Influencing Suicides

Another problem with social media that can increase suicidal behaviour is cyber harassment and cyber bullying.  When various internet media are used to intentionally and continuously harass or threaten a child or teenager or even an adult, it is termed cyber bullying, cyber harassment or cyber stalking and it is a very serious problem.  The media used to perpetrate these acts include text messaging, instant messaging, e-mail and social networking sites where people get “trolled” maliciously.  These acts place negative pressure on the recipients thereby intensifying their lonely feelings, hopelessness, instability and isolation which is made worse in people who are already under intense psychological or emotional stressors and increases their risk to commit suicide.  A study by Hinduja and Patchin (2010) showed that middle school children who had been cyber bullied were two times more likely to attempt suicide that others who were not.  It also showed that offenders of cyber bullying were 1.5 times more likely to attempt suicide than those who were neither targets of nor offenders of cyber bullying.

Furthermore, there have been reports of strangers who met on bulletin boards and chat rooms or forums deciding to commit suicide on the same day.  This is called "Cybersuicide pact" and the first documented case was reported in 2000 in Japan where the suicide rate is still on the increase.  This problem is a major topic for discussion on the internet and it is suspected that its impact in precipitating or encouraging suicides lie in the fact that people of like minds are able to share their stories and then push each other in the direction they want. These boards also provide information on the various methods that people can use to commit suicide thus making it much easier for people to kill themselves.

Another point worthy of note is the media contagion effect.  Suicide contagion refers to a state in which suicidal behaviour spontaneously sweeps across a particular group of people and this affects people who are less than 25 years old more than other ages.  When certain people are exposed to information about suicide through any means, this may influence their decision to kill themselves.  In some cases, chat rooms and bulletin boards create memorial pages for those who die by suicide and for the impressionable minds;  this may push them towards committing suicide.  The reason being that users also want to be idolized by those who had already committed suicide and so they get a few minutes of fame even if they are dead.  This problem has more deep seated psychological problems that are merely augmented by the social media.

Contrariwise, social media also contributes in some ways to the prevention of suicide.  There are social networking pages that provide interactions between people with similar stories to help prevent suicides, provide help lines and provide awareness about suicide prevention.  Some of these pages include the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline which can both be found on Facebook.  There are also several groups on Twitter and even blogs that are dedicated to providing information vital in preventing suicides.  Also, Google and Yahoo also have features that serve as proactive suicide prevention links; when a person uses a search word that indicates suicidal intent, links are displayed at the top of the result page about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  These features can provide help to a person who is contemplating suicide.
In Singapore, Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) is the main suicide prevention centre which helps people in crisis, thinking of suicide or affected by suicide. Their number is 1800-221 4444 (24 hours).

World Suicide Prevention Day 2017 (by Samaritans of Singapore)

The research into the role of social media in pro-suicide behavior does not have enough data to draw a clear-cut relationship although evidence suggests there is a link and the whole world is beginning to sit up and take notice.  Therefore, it should be the responsibility of every user of social media to ensure that they do what they can to prevent suicide by sharing information on suicide prevention help lines on their time lines and when people post contents that  may suggest that they are contemplating suicide, it should be taken seriously.

For more posts on Social Media on SG Psych Stuff:
SGPsychStud:  Networking on Social Media
Jerry O.:  The Influence of Social Media on Behaviour
Jerry O.:  Why People Are Into Social Media

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