On November 30 of this year, a Guelph University undergraduate logged onto 4chan and announced that he was planning to take his own life while livestreaming it online. Designed as an English-language image-based bulletin board, 4chan is a favourite site for anonymous online communities and has become notorious for internet pranks and suicide chatrooms. In this student's case, his promised suicide attempt drew up to 200 watchers, all encouraging him to go on with the promised "show."
Under the watchful eye of his audience, "Stephen" (as he had billed himself online) took an overdose of pills, drank vodka, and then used a toaster to set fire to part of his room. Hiding the toaster under his bed, he continued relaying details of his suicide attempt online while the fire spread. The fans watching the coverage online made no attempt at calling for help or attempting to intervene despite advance warning of his intention. Many openly supported his action and even urged him on.
Emergency personnel arrived on the scene and he is currently being treated at a local hospital in Guelph for serious but not life-threatening injuries. Family and friends refuse to speculate publicly over the reason for his bizarre suicide attempt. All that authorities have to go on is what he wrote on 4chan just prior to his suicide attempt. "I thought I would finally give back to the community in the best possible way. I am willing to an hero [commit suicide] on cam for you all. All that I request is for you guys to link me to a site where I am able to stream for you guys." The "an hero" reference related to the 2006 suicide of Mitchell Henderson who was later referred to as "an hero" online for killing himself. The phrase has since taken on a life of its own as a synonym for suicide.
As the unnamed student continues to recover, questions are being asked about why the 21-year old Criminal Justice major would attempt suicide is such a grisly fashion. Not only is there no history of mental illness in his case, but friends and family report that he seemed in good spirits in the weeks leading up to the attempt. This has led to a war of words between the student's friends and anonymous sources leaving caustic comments on his Facebook page. A statement released by one friend from the student's hometown of Orangeville, Ontario, reproached his online critics. "Have some respect and stop," she said. "We are friends with D_, I was supposed to be seeing him after exams. Did any of you eggheads cheering him on think to help him and say stop? What if that was your sister? Your friend? Would you be saying this s***?" Other friends defending him and attacking his detractors have drawn online attacks of their own.
In the meantime, police continue to investigate the fire and the role that social media may have played in the incident. It is still unclear how criminally liable 4chan or the people posting to thevideo may be at this point.
But is the link between social media and suicide a health concern as well? A research study published recently in the journal Crisis examined the role that social media plays in how the public views suicide. The researchers conducting the study also looked at the impact that social media is having on how people communicate their suicidal intention. Conducted by researchers at the University of Hong Kong and the University of Rochester, the study focused on a February 23, 2011 incident in China when a microblogger posted a wrist-cutting image on a Chinese microblogging site.
The poster, known only as "J" living in Shenzhen city, included a message with his image in which he said, "Today, I returned back to you. That’s all.You made me feel like falling from heaven to hell. Now I get it.” After going viral, "J" posted a second message which read, "Sorry, I am so sorry. I didn’t know my personal issue could draw so much attention here. I am fine. I have already wrapped up my wound.” Police later investigated and announced J's identity, and his suicide attempt, were both real.
The researchers investigating the reaction to J's postings reported that the original post was reposted 3,974 times and received 1,997 comments within three hours. After examining the content of the responses, the researchers determined that the posters responding to the original post were largely split between males and females living in urban areas. The comments were broken down into expressions of concern (19.8 percent), attempts at calling for help (16.8 percent), and expressions of shock or outrage (19.5 percent). As for cynical or indifferent comments, they accounts for 23.4 percent of the total with the final 20.4 percent of responders simply reposting the image without comment.
While the research showed that people with suicidal intentions can use social media as a "cry for help" or attention, the majority of people responding to the announced suicide attempt expressed sympathy and offers of help. Though there were also cynical comments that mocked the suicide attempt, they were in the minority. Based on their findings, the study authors suggest that social media can be a powerful tool for providing help for people who might otherwise feel isolated.
Recognizing the potential role of social media in preventing suicides, Facebook has recently launched a number of initiatives to identify people deemed to be at risk. By identifiying high-risk people early, medical professionals can be in a better position to intervene before it is too late. At the same time, being able to post anonymously on many social media platforms also means that many people planning to carry out online suicides may not be identified in time to save their lives, or at least to prevent serious injuries. Though less of an issue in countries such as China which does not allow anonymous posting, the conflict between the need to respond to online suicides and the right to be anonymous is likely to become a major issue in other countries.
Researchers also need to take a closer look at the potential impact that online suicide attempts may have depending on whether people are able to provide help in time to save lives. There is also the possibility to online suicides can lead to copycat deaths, especially in younger people who are more vulnerable.
Ultimately, social media can be regarded as a double-edged sword. Whether how people respond to online suicides will help prevent deaths or increase them is anybody's guess at this point.