Social Media and Suicide: Where is the line between talking about it and causing it to happen again?

May 16, 2019


With the spread of information over vast and sometimes uncontrollable platforms within social media, it is hard to gage, control, and direct sensitive topics about mental health, especially when it comes to something as triggering as suicide. Niederkrotenhaler, Tilly, and Garcia published their study in the Journal of Affective Disorders which looks specifically at the relationship between twitter and suicide. This case study reviews the suicide coverage of the late pop star Avicii (Tim Bergling) and his fanbase reactions via twitter. The article written in Psychology Today, Does Twitter Contribute to Suicide?  summarizes the study and further comments.

After reading, the following questions came to mind:

  • What specifically is at risk and why?
  • When contributing to the conversation, is social media unsafe or useful? Can it be both?  
  • If social media is a responsibility, how do we handle it?

Social media platforms could be unsafe due to the spread of triggering content

Given the spread of information on celebrity suicides via twitter, many are concerned it will enact a series of “copycat suicides” in younger, impressionable, and mentally unstable individuals. Research from over 50 studies worldwide suggests suicide coverage must be gentle. If the coverage describes how the suicide was done, uses graphic pictures/ headlines, or extensively sensationalizes said person’s death over a repeated amount of time, the likelihood of imitative suicides increases. Furthermore, since twitter is a social media platform that has little to no control of the content that is reissued and the length in which it stays visible, professionals remain concerned.  

Other controversy arises concerning freedom of speech and censorship. Some believe they have the right to continuously post details on the death of a celebrity, or at least remain open and talk about the celebrity in order to continue their legacy. So where is the line between talking about what happened to them, their story, their grief, and instigating it again, this time towards someone else?

white banner with various social media icons including YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter
Social media effects mental health in many different ways, but one thing researches are beginning to question is its potential to trigger self inflicted violence. Photo from Health and Biomedical Informatics Center.

What happens when fans talk about a celebrity suicide death via social media?

The study aimed to gage the twitter users reaction in terms of their activity over time and the suicide related content in each tweet. Using Twitter Application Programming Inter (API), the researches first separated the data by looking at three different “waves” of tweets based on each new disclosure concerning Avicii’s death by suicide:

  • the first regarding the news of death
  • the second, the disclosure that it was suicide
  • and the third, the method in which he commited it

Deceased singer Avicii against a black background looking into the camera prior to mental health crisis
Study analyzes the fan reports in social media surrounding  Avicii’s death , and whether or not they contain triggering content. Image by Amy Sussman/Invision/AP/REX/Shut

Additionally, while following the fanbase and their progressive revelations, the researches looked for indicators that measured and provided for an emotional analysis. They compared tweets concerning Avicii’s death to random tweets, for instance, in order to gage a general basis for negativity and positivity amongst twitter users.

The first wave consisted primarily of shorter messages that centered around terms like death, RIP, and Twitter. “These first tweets mostly reflected outpourings of love and sadness.” Though it only lasted for 12 hours- the shortest wave compared to all three - it included the most amount of tweets concerning the subject. The numbers ranged in millions.

The second wave, stating that the mode of death was suicide, created a spike in twitter activity from fans that lasted longer than the first. Though they demonstrated anxiety and sadness, they were not, according to the researchers, “a danger to impressionable fans.”

The third wave focused on the way in which Avicii killed himself. Activity within this wave was considerably lower than the second and first, however those who did focus on it had a larger following. Those with larger followings included major news outlets who did not follow research backed protocol when reporting the suicide, ignored the warnings, and continued to reveal the suicide related details.

Is social media, then, really that unsafe?

Is social media a lost and detrimental cause or is it needed to express individual grief, and honor the legacy of said person left behind?

On one hand, in the study, the twitter platforms who had large followers, discussed the suicide method graphically --  which could potentially be dangerous given no one knows for sure who was receiving this information and the state of their mental health.

On the other hand, however, the majority of people discussing Avicii's suicide were primarily not concerned about the method of suicide, but used their twitter accounts to express, discuss, and connect with others about their grief. Which brings us back to square one: a blurry and unmitigated line between relying on social media for decompression and being cautious about what we should and should not share.

So what do we do about it?

Who is responsible here? One thing to consider is that this is an isolated study concerning one celebrity and their respective fanbase. Overall, little research has been done considering the relationship between social media and suicide, and perhaps this is something that should be more thoroughly invested. Other studies, for instance, have looked at the correlation between social media and detrimental anxiety conditions amongst its many users. And this major study covered by Time, looks at the deeper mechanisms within social media that contribute to a deteriorating individual mental health. But there are few other case studies like this one out there.

Meanwhile, do we help remedy the problem? Rather than putting forth opinions governing what can be shared and what should be talked about, one thing an individual can do is watch, observe, and be on the lookout for threads that exhibit suicidal thought and behavior. After updating their policies regarding mental health, Twitter has outlined a guideline for what to do when you feel someone online needs help. The set of procedures includes a run down for what to look for and how their team goes about resolving the issue.

Additionally, if we are to discuss sensitive topics online, we should be educated on how to do it. Reporting on outlines a series of guidelines for suicide discussion, provides professional contacts to confide in, and maintains additional links for the individual blogger who wants to report on suicide.

Some recommendations include:

  • Avoid sharing the contents of a suicide note
  • Avoid describing suicide as an “epidemic”
  • Tips for reporting on suicide as a mental health issue rather than a crime

Keep in mind, all of us don’t need to create individual blogs, websites, and massive undertakings to lead a positive impact, but we can maintain these ideals while contributing to our own news feeds. That could mean getting the word around, sharing this article, or keeping someone accountable when you see they’ve posted something potentially triggering. It could also mean being aware of your own personal content when and where you create it.

animated image of fog horn saying " Time For Action"
It’s time to be wary of our own individual social media platforms, the space we take up, and the positive atmosphere we thereby create and contribute to. Impact Branding and Designs

At this point, there is no hard line between right and wrong. No ultimate realistic solution that will mitigate every negative aspect between social media and mental health. In other words, there is no turning social media off. At least not on such a massive scale. The best that we can do for now, is be aware of the information highlighted in this article and in previous research, seek them out, define them as boundaries, and meanwhile try to look out for one another. Most importantly, and perhaps tangentially, we can strive to maintain healthy human connections outside our screens.

Depression is hard and lonely and tiresome, but there are ways to treat it both short term and long term. Best reach out to a professional, ask them about different forms of therapy such as TMS, or use available resources online like this blog. The internet can be a massive tangled triggering web, or it can be a net to help ourselves catch each other when we fall.

Please note that if you or someone you know is experiencing any number of these symptoms, you should talk to a mental healthcare provider right away. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger or experiencing a mental health emergency, call 911 for immediate assistance.

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