Sunday, 3 August 2008

Young and fragile

It's disturbing that there are internet sites inciting young people to take their own lives and advising them on how to do it. Experts say they know of at least 30 suicides in which the internet has played a major role - not to mention attempted suicides.

But what should be done about these sites if anything? Should we respect free speech whatever the subject and whatever the possible results? Should such sites be closed down? Should they be forced to include links to organisations with a different point of view?

The British government are so concerned they are urging internet service providers to veto "harmful or distasteful" suicide sites, and to provide automatic links to bodies like the Samaritans or ChildLine giving advice on depression and emotional problems.

They're also looking at the existing laws to see if they're strong enough or if they need to be updated.

It's a thorny issue. Once you start interfering in the content of websites and saying what is or isn't acceptable, where do you stop? Even if some young people are impressionable or emotionally fragile, it is right to block off anything that might influence them for the worse and say they're not even allowed to see it?

Just about any website can have a bad influence on people if they are susceptible and interpret what it says in an unintended way. If only a very small number of people might be vulnerable, is it justified to take such draconian action? And if someone wants to commit suicide, shouldn't they have the right to do that anyway?

But I'm not happy with this classic liberal free-speech argument, the idea that anything goes and it's up to the individual to take responsibility for their feelings and actions. A caring society has to protect people at risk and ensure their safety and well-being, rather than leaving them to their fate.

There are already thousands of measures protecting young people from harm and exploitation, and a good job too. I think the government is right to urge safeguards and precautions.

We shouldn't freely allow people to encourage those in emotional difficulties to take an extreme solution, if there are other courses of action that might enable them to sort out those problems and turn their life around.


  1. Oh this is a very sticky wicket, Nick.
    There have always been suicides of the vulnerable and pre-internet.

    Libraries were a resource in the old days as were those towns where teenagers were more prone to the taking of their own lives by the youth. Like a virus that spread to others (also, remember the Kurt Cobain cult?)

    There is a hidden agenda with the internet being the focus of censorship with the reason being the safety and well being of citizens being bandied about. Too much free speech out there.We tend to forget in the surge of righteousness that the solutions are also on the internet.

    Susceptible and depressed teens will 'off' themselves, regardless. Internet or no internet.


  2. This subject is close to my heart, these websites are epidemic. Whilst the people behind them are clearly very sick individuals, the cannot be blamed for the rising suicide rates amongst my generation.

    I agree with wisewebwoman, she is living up to screen name. Websites were people can seek help and advice also exsist. The thing is you have to want the help, these suicide websites are only dangerous to those don't want the help. These people will probably go through with the act of suicide eventually, without much encouragement from outside sources.

    My friend John (not his real name, but I would like to protect him here as much as possible) has made 7 suicide attempts. I found and saved his life by phoning an ambulance, one of my other friends also found him and saved his life - twice. To this day we don't know why he is suicidal, because he won't talk to us or anyone.

    He made his 1st suicide attempt long before these websites gain prominance in the media. He is currently under Psychiatric observation, where he has made 4 of his 7 suicide attepts. This is shocking, but it also upsets me that we will never know why John is so depressed, that death seems like a solution.

  3. www - That's a No Need To Panic then? Good point about there having always been sources of information for the suicidal. Another good point about the net also having solutions to the problems.

    dj - Sorry to hear about your friend, I can't imagine how much pain he must be in. It's so often the case that even close friends can't understand suicidal feelings. As you say, if someone is determined to go, they'll find a way somehow.

  4. Oooh . . I'm with www on hidden Agendas. At a time where China is opening the internet (to journos only) is seen as a step forward for opening up to the world, there are those who would seek to censor it's content. Whilst suicide instruction sites (I haven't visited one) might give hot tips to the suicidal and as unsightly as porn sights are . . I prefer my internet uncensored. And it is true that those hell bent on finishing their lives will find a way whatever the media they use for instruction. Perhaps some of the good samaritan sites should consider linking to the suicide sites without being mandated by government.

  5. I think we all forget that there is something called "duty of care". Banning and obstructing free speech are evil ok, but what is going to prevent the damage done on the young, uninformed, inexperienced minds? When people are in a position to make informed decisions, it is one thing. I am 38, all my life I heard about the health risk of smoking. If I take it up now, it is fully my own free will and choice. Who is to say a 10 year old who has access to smoke and huge peer pressure knocking on his/her door has this kind of luxury I have in the decision making process? Since the parents of most of these kids don't care enough to check on the websites their kids are visiting, or exercise healthy control and discipline over the amount of time their kids spend on the internet, who is going to implement that "duty of care"? I don't see a solution to it at this stage, with the given technology and the lack of interest in the mental health of young people.

  6. Baino - China's certainly a good example of what happens if censorship becomes normal - totally undesirable. In theory I'm with you that the net shouldn't be censored at all, but should we really just say, if you're suggestible and confused, too bad? As for good samaritan sites linking to suicide sites - you little mischief-maker!

    Gayé - Oh good, someone on my side! Absolutely, what happened to the duty of care? If we say there's no such duty, why have parenting at all? Why not just throw the kids out and let them bring up themselves? What are parents for exactly? You're right, as experienced adults we can make a mature choice on something, but can a child react so sensibly?

  7. I disagree, it isn't up to society to look after these people. The group you're talking about are my generation, 18 to 20 somethings. We have already gone past the need for parenting.

    Having reached the age of consent for sex, alcohol consumption and being allowed to vote. We are more worldly wise than people give us credit for.

    The mention of peer presure is insulting, it is not something you have to give into. In high school when everyone around was smoking, I never jumped on the band wagon. At the age of 13 I made an important life decision, then at age 18 I came out to my parents and family, another important life decision. On both occasions I was prepared for the consequences of my actions, whatever they might have been.

    Whilst I may have contemplated suicide, in my darkest hour. I was never be able to go through with it. The thought of the people and things I would leave behind saw to that. Anyway I came out the other side of this shadowy patch safely, and much stronger for it.

    I garantee you if I hadn't made it through that period, I wouldn't have needed instructions or even encouragement. I would have known exactly what I was doing. It is sick and wrong that these websites exsist, but to censor them would be wrong.

    We are already living in a Big Brother, nanny state, CCTV and over legislation. Most of which serves to protect the government. We are currently already heavy censored, ask the man who was arrested for heckling at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, last year or possibly the year before that, I can't remember exactly when it happened.

    But the point is, if we continue down this path, life will be just like 1984. How fun, for us all.

  8. Most people know how to commit suicide without the aid of a suicide website. It may add to the sophistication or drama of the method of suicide.

    What interests me is what suicidal people gain from visiting these websites. Perhaps it is contacting people who understand the existential paint they are experiencing.

    Friends and family get scared, so people don't talk about feeling suicidal. Unfortunately, they are not talking to people who are psychologically trained or objective.


    I wonder how many just visit, and don't act on it.

  9. By the time children become young adults it's too late to help or encourage or provide guidance etc. The youth I worked with were self-harmers, convicted burglars, drug addicts, you name it, age range: 10 - 17. I worked with a kid 10 years old, had 52 convictions under his belt. He knew juvenile system inside out. Of course someone in their 18-20's will have gone through the childhood with little if any of the "duty of care" we are talking about here.
    An 18 year old doesn't just become suicidal by visiting a website, but an already depressed 18 year old will be going down the spiral faster.
    It is amazing how people have become so desensitized in many different ways. Unrestricted access to anything that instigate violence, self-harm, etc by youth is wrong wrong wrong.
    Freedom is and can never be without limits and bounds either for freedom to benefit anyone, self and others both.

  10. dj - So what you're saying is that these sites are unlikely to have any major influence because people are already either inclined that way or not? And that young people are intelligent enough to make up their own minds without necessarily being pushed into something?

    I remember the Labour Party's treatment of Walter Wolfgang very well, it was a disgrace. And it's true Labour thinks the solution to just about every problem is to crank out more and more, often useless, legislation. The ID card scheme in particular is a complete waste of time and money. This is certainly a very authoritarian government.

    Hulla - True, one of the problems is not wanting to talk about suicidal feelings for fear of the reaction. The taboo on such a very normal feeling, given the tough lives some people have to cope with, needs to be swept away.

    Gayé - Unfortunately yes, people have got very desensitised to violence and unhappiness and don't do enough to stop it. Freedom has to have some limits or you end up with a society where the powerful hold sway and the weak go to the wall.

  11. Nick:
    I'm jumping in again.
    I've known people who suicided. In all cases the suicides were carefully planned and executed. A negative life event in all cases pushed them over the edge.
    A high bridge in Toronto was renowned for its 200 suicides a year. The city fenced the top in at a cost of a couple of million dollars (angel veil of complex wires). A distress line number had always been by both entrances to the bridge. never used.
    Now the subway (tube) drivers have to deal with a lot more suicide on the tracks - the result of the veiling of the viaduct? Who's to know?
    what I'm trying to say here is that troubles and distraught people will find a way out, internet or not. In my father's time they'd hang themselves in the outhouse. Now they are getting more sophisticated.
    And a lot, A LOT, of suicides in Ireland were classified as a 'natural death' due to the consecrated ground prohibition of burial stance by the Catholic church.
    Censorship and less freedom on the internet will not reduce the number of suicides. A hose and a car muffler does the job quickly and easily if one is so inclined.

  12. www - You may well be right that the suicidal will find a way and do what they're determined to do whatever the obstacles. I guess really deep despair is not easily shifted by anyone or anything.

    I think a lot of suicides are still hushed up as natural deaths because of the lingering taboo and shame.

  13. Whoa, did www just provide instruction on suicide. Still here, no harm done I guess.

    Sorry for being flip.

    Just wanted to say, I stand by my original comments. I feel this is fair, given that I drew from my own personal experiences.

    But I do realise these websites are extremely damaging. However, they are not the only source of information, if a person was so inclined, I know of one book that could be an indespensible tool.

    The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides. The book is about 5 sisters, all of whom commit suicide. The story is told from the perspective of the neighbourhood boys (as adults) and explores the effects of the girls deaths on both their family and the residents of the neighbourhood. All of the suicides a described in horrifyingly graphic detail, with explainations of why they do certain things, i.e. slitting wrist in a bath. 2 of the sisters make 2 suicide attempts, that 7 detailed accounts to provide inspiration.

    In spite of the dark subject matter, the book is brilliant and wonderfully written.

    But, if we censor the internet, then we have to censor the books or burn them. Farenheit 451, 1984, life imitating art. I'll pass, thank you.

  14. dj - I know of the book, I didn't realise it was full of such graphic detail. As you say, it could be used as an instruction manual just as much as a website. And your mention of books is illuminating - while controlling websites is seen as a plausible idea, the idea of censoring books is still considered outrageous. A bit of double-think there.

  15. Hmm... if the owners of the sites can be directly tied to a particular suicide, I wonder if they can get indicted on murder charges or sued for wrongful death. If so, the legal fees alone would force them to shut down.

  16. Liz, an interesting idea. It IS claimed that there are direct links between these websites and certain suicides. But if it's suicide, then presumably the website owners could argue that ultimately it was the person's own decision and they couldn't be held responsible.

  17. I was unsure how I felt reading your post, Nick. But the debate on the comments board has been real food for thought. I think in the end my gut instincts have been reaffirmed by the strong arguments of WWW and DJ Mikey.

    I lived with a suicidal mother for most of my adolecense, and I can't imagine access to internet sites had any bearing on her pain or her decisions.

    While I agree that there should be some accountability for those who prey on the vulnerable, I don't believe censorship is the way to do that - and I certainly don't think these suicide websites are the first and last to exploit people in times of vulnerability.

  18. FG - Your feeling that websites wouldn't have had any bearing on your mother's actions is interesting. The general consensus certainly seems to be that censoring the sites in any way is not only unhelpful but detrimental to free speech.

  19. It's a sad fact of life that you can find everything from ways to commit suicide to bomb making on the internet these days and regulating it is almost impossible and but as you say it's not the cause and not the motivation for people who want to do something harmful.

    p.s. You've just been tagged over at mine!

  20. Quicky - I guess what the government should be asking is not how do we control these websites but why are some people so desperately miserable that the only thing they aspire to is suicide?

    Tagged? Eek! Will investigate.

  21. See now your asking the right questions Nick:

    It's not about the information available to these people, or even how they choose to use it.

    It's about some deep rooted emotional trauma. That's the real problem, that is what makes people suicidal and that is what we need to try and tackle.

    We need to take mental health more seriously. The health service could set up some sort of counselling programme. Pyschiatric check-ups could be made complusory, then maybe we will make a small step towards countering this problem.

    It will take time, but if act now, who knows what the outcome will be. We may even see some of society's other problems, like domestic abuse dwindling. Now that a goal, to strive for.

  22. dj - I thought the NHS already offered counselling, but unfortunately not nearly enough for the demand. I don't fancy the idea of compulsory psychiatric check-ups - surely that's as draconian as vetting websites?

    BTW, I hope this lengthy conversation isn't distracting you from your medical studies!

  23. Maybe complusory Psychiatric evaluations are draconian, but you must agree that we don't take our mental health seriously enough. Nor does the government. And that is the real problem.

    I finished uni for the summer, will be starting back at the end of September. So It's not really a distraction. I set aside time every week do some revision, but I'm not covinced it is necessary as I have sailed through every academic challenge in my life. Without ever cracking the spine of a book, still uni is a little harder than anything I've done before and I only just finished my 1st year.

    Have a new post on my blog check it out. Please.