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Social media sites 'spur teens suicides'

social media Updated: May 12, 2012 16:50 IST

Text messaging and social media sites like Bebo have contributed to the spread of suicide in a spate of teen deaths, a new study has claimed.

Otago University researchers found that communication via text message and Bebo were likely to have helped the spread of suicide in an area where eight teenagers killed themselves within a short time span.

The spread of inaccurate information and rumour, the “glorifying” of dead young people through online tribute pages, and the heightened anxiety felt in the community may have all contributed towards copycat suicides, the authors found.

They said suicide prevention guidelines needed to be reviewed to help prevent suicide contagion through social media.

Other suggestions included monitoring social network sites and removing Bebo and Facebook pages.

In the study, Keren Skegg and fellow researchers investigated eight teenage suicides in an unnamed New Zealand city within a relatively large rural district in 2006.

Six of the suicides happened within a six-month period, while the two other suicides, one in a neighbouring district, and the other several months before, were included after the researchers found links.

They found while mainstream media was responsible in its coverage, rumour spread quickly on social networking sites. Inaccurate information about suicide, including the method, spread through Bebo and text messaging – sometimes only hours after the deaths. Fear and anxiety were heightened.

Online tribute pages became shrines to the dead, with overwhelmingly positive messages posted.

A social event promoted on Bebo was thought to have contributed to the contagion, as within weeks another person in the group had committed suicide.

While “clusters” of suicidal behaviour were only thought to account for between 1 and 13 per cent of youth suicides, it was important to respond because they were often the most preventable, the study said.

It was of particular relevance in New Zealand, where the youth suicide rate is the second highest in the OECD and social media use is prevalent.

Skegg, the lead researcher, said it was clear that social media could contribute towards copycat suicides among impressionable teenagers.