For young people contemplating suicide, the Internet can be a very dangerous place.
Despite numerous websites providing information and counseling for people in need, there is also an active online community of suicide "groupies" who encourage users to kill themselves. Along with chat rooms and bulletin boards where suicidal ideas and death fantasies can be shared, cases of suicide "voyeurs" who encourage vulnerable people to kill themselves are hardly uncommon. There are also sites providing concrete advice on different suicide methods (including the sale of "suicide kits") as well as instructions on how to make suicides look like accidents. While many of these pro-suicide sites can also provide emotional support, the damage from this pro-suicide material vulnerable cannot be underestimated.
One research study looking at young people aged ten to seventeen who are exposed to pro-suicide conversations or images shows that vulnerable users are seven times more likely to have thoughts about killing themselves after visiting these sites. Exposure to pro-suicide material can also have an adverse effect on mental health, especially for people experiencing depression. Many of these pro-suicide sites tend to romanticize suicide which pushes young people on the edge into carrying out suicidal acts instead of finding professional help. While only a small percentage of hits in an average search for suicide-related material will be to these pro-suicide sites, they are still freely available to anyone motivated to finding them.
But what is it that makes some young people particularly vulnerable to this kind of pro-suicide message? A new research study published in the journal Crisis provides a comparative analysis of young people in four different countries in terms of pro-suicide site exposure as well as what can make people more vulnerable to this kind of message.
In their research, Janna Minkkinen of the University of Turku in Finland and a team of fellow researchers administered online questionnaires on 3,535 respondents aged fifteen to thirty (1,015 from the US, 999 from the UK, 978 from Germany, and 543 from Finland). The questionnaires measured reported level of personal happiness, whether or not they saw pro-suicide websites in the previous twelve months, the strength of their personal support networks (including how close they felt to family and friends), as well as demographic information on age, gender, employment, and living situation.
According to the study results, overall level of personal happiness varied across the different countries studied with Finnish respondents reporting the highest level of happiness and U.K. respondents the lowest (U.S. respondents were in the middle). Males were generally happier than females though sex differences were rarely significant. As for level of exposure to pro-suicide sites, approximately ten percent of all respondents reporting having visited a pro-suicide site in the previous year (again this varied across different countries).
Not surprisingly, there was an inverse relationship between level of happiness and visits to pro-suicide sites which was consistent for both male and female respondents across all countries. Young males were also more likely than young females to report having visited one of these sites at some point in the previous year.
Overall, young people who reported not having a strong sense of closeness to friends or family seem particularly vulnerable to the pro-suicide messages found online. While previous studies showed that having good emotional support from family members and friends helps protect people from daily stress, actual research looking at how well this protect young people online is still fairly rare. Overall, having a strong circle of friends seems to be more important than good family support, at least as far as young people are concerned though this seems to vary across different countries.
For example, American participants were more likely to report that having a strong family connection helps promote happiness in spite of exposure to pro-suicide material than participants from other countries. American participants who reported not having a strong family connection were particularly vulnerable to the influence of pro-suicide sites. With British and Finnish young people however, having a strong network of friends seemed to be more important than family connections.
Young adults are usually in a transition phase after moving away from home and being on their own for the first time in their lives. For this reason, having a strong circle of friends helps provide the psychological support they are used to getting at home. Also, in many industrialized societies such as the United States, starting a new job or school often means moving far away from close relatives which can lead to a greater sense of isolation.
Coping with the depression and isolation many young people find themselves facing can make them particularly vulnerable to the kind of pro-suicide message found online. Which is what makes social media so important for staying in touch with loved ones. In many ways, this kind of contact can often be as effective as face-to-face meetings and people of all ages are becoming increasingly dependent on social media for this reason.
Ironically, this means that the same Internet which allows constant contact with family and friends through social media also allows for potentially harmful pro-suicide exposure as well. More research is still needed to study the link between pro-suicide sites and suicidal behaviour as well as what makes some young people particularly vulnerable.
As this latest study demonstrates, having close relationships with friends or family appears to act as a buffer that can help protect the mental health of young people, especially when they have been exposed to pro-suicide messages. Learning more about different protective factors that can help prevent suicide, as well as improving mental health, is likely more important than ever.