Teen Suicide: Yesterday’s News May Be Tomorrow’s Problem
Headline news may have an impact on teen suicide clusters.
Posted Jun 27, 2014
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.
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"?
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