Teen Suicide: Yesterday’s News May Be Tomorrow’s Problem

Headline news may have an impact on teen suicide clusters.

Posted Jun 27, 2014

According to new research, heightened newspaper coverage following a suicide may have a significant impact on teen suicide clusters. A study published earlier last month in Lancet Psychiatry supports the long-suspected correlations between heightened media exposure and suicide. It appears that suicide articles that become headliners, or reach the front page, and those that are detail-oriented, are correlated with copycat suicides. The study found that the more graphic, descriptive, detailed and explicit the story, the more likely suicide clusters will occur.

This new study leads to an interesting question... Is the media sensationalizing suicide when it covers stories? Maybe they are, but it may not be intentional.

The research consisted of a controlled study that identified 48 suicide clusters in teens between the ages of 13 and 20 years old from across the United States between 1988 and 1996. Each cluster was made up of 3 to 11 victims who ended their live within 6 months of the first suicide. Researchers identified communities in which a teen suicide had occurred and identified cluster communities and matched them with two non-cluster control communities. They investigated 469 newspapers for suicide stories that ran in communities which a suicide had occurred. Additionally they explored suicides of like-aged young people, from non-adjacent counties in the same state.

Interestingly, they found that significantly more newspaper articles about suicidal individuals were published after the first cluster suicide (avg. 7.42 stories) than after a suicide that was not part of a cluster (avg. 5.14). They also found that these articles were more explicit in detail, described the method used, explained where the death occurred, and became headline news with the word “suicide” in the title.

So what it all boils down to is that media still has a powerful influence over the lives of young people. This should come as no surprise since numerous studies have shown this to be true time and time again; particularly in the domain of drug use, body-image and youth violence. The power of media can influence risky behaviors in teens; particularly if teens believe "everybody's doing it."

A prime example of the media’s impact on teens comes out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Researchers found that teens who saw a lot of pictures and stories about underage drinking on social networking sites thought this behavior was the norm. Unfortunately, it appears the more teens are exposed to these pictures and stories the more accepted it is; clearly an erroneous belief. In sum, fiction may become a teen's reality.

Body-image is probably one of the most noted areas in which media impacts adolescents. For example, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, reports that 69% of girls in 5th – 12th grades report that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape. Well, we know that's simply not true. In fact, the average woman is 5’4” tall weighing 140 pounds; the average US model is 5’11” weighing 117 pounds. Even with all of our awareness on this issue, we still haven't made it to the next step... Doing something about it.

And let's not forget about the studies correlating the media's illustrations of violence and crime with youth violence. The research in this area shows that those who are repeatedly exposed to media violence are at an increased risk of violent behavior. While it is difficult to determine which youths' are at the greatest risk; there's no doubt that media has a role in shaping the lives of our young people in more areas than one.

And now as this new study reveals cluster suicides provides another example of the strong grasp media has on our youth. The way in which suicide is reported, depicted and portrayed may be a factor in suicide clusters. I pose the question: Does one really need all of the graphics and details about how a person has ended his or her own life? What can we learn from this study? For starters, as adults we need to be aware of what our children are watching, playing, and reading. We need to be sensitive and careful about how we portray information to our children; particularly in regards to suicide. Remember, we are the consumers and audience. If the stories aren't being read or the ratings drop the industry pulls the plug. 

A personal perspective... From across a crowded room, I once watched the news media rush to the mother who just lost her child in a horrific car accident. The reporter pushed a microphone in front of her face. I was disgusted. I graciously watched a man break into the crowd and ask the reporter to respect the woman's privacy. Was the insensitivity worth the "Breaking News" segment? Whatever happened to kindness, compassion, and empathy? How far should reporters go to get the "big story"?

Now as a disclaimer, I know that a lot of reporters don't act in this manner. I, like millions of others, turn to media outlets to get information about what’s happening in my community, state, nation and world. So not all media is bad press. But that still leaves the burning question... “Now that we know the potential effects of headlining suicide, what are we going to do about it?” With the ever growing use of social media, one thing is certain; we have to be more careful about how we relay information. I hope that we'd all agree that suicide is one area that we don't want to sensationalize.

Journal Reference: 

Madelyn S Gould, Marjorie H Kleinman, Alison M Lake, Judith Forman, Jennifer Bassett Midle. Newspaper coverage of suicide and initiation of suicide clusters in teenagers in the USA, 1988–96: a retrospective, population-based, case-control study. Lancet Psychiatry, May 2014 DOI: 10.1016/S2215-0366(14)70225-1


West Virginia Dept of Educationhttp://www.justsayyes.org/topics/self-image-media-influences/.