Today, news outlets are reporting on a CDC study that indicates suicide rates in the U.S. are on the rise. What role, if any, should social media sites play in helping to decrease these suicide rates? In this new era where everyone shares every detail of their lives online, we are also seeing an increase of suicide notes and suicidal intentions posted on various social networks.
A couple of days ago on April 20, a high school student took his life after posting a short video on Instagram that began by saying, “Hey, so, I’m killing myself. Goodbye.” According to Nola.com the young man then said he “could not live happily because “my morals are totally different from the world around me.” Tragically, he used a pistol to take his own life soon after.
Many are questioning whether or not Instagram should have played a role in helping to prevent this suicide, or at least should have taken quicker action removing the video. As pointed out on Nola.com, the video stayed up for around 24 hours, had over 900 comments and over 15,000 views. There is an option for users to flag posts for “self-harm”, so it seems likely that a number of people who saw this post would have reported it. According to their Terms of Service, Instagram does not allow posts that glorify self harm or suicide. Some are left to wonder if this video fell within that category.
There wasn’t a lot of time between when the video was posted and when the student took his life, so it may have been nearly impossible for anyone to intervene, even if Instagram did get involved. But why was the video left up for a full day? One explanation is that Instagram has such a large number of flagged posts to sift through and this one might have escaped automatic filters. The post was eventually taken down, so it does seem that the video had violated TOS in some way.
Another example of someone posting their intention to kill themselves on social media is the case of 27 year old trans-woman Kate von Roeder who took her own life in 2014. She posted a suicide note to Facebook shortly before it happened. The post is still visible today and it can be seen in the comments that her friends are pleading with her not to do it and to seek help.
(a warning to more sensitive readers – this is a suicide note and may be triggering):
Should sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter be required to police self-harm-related or suicidal content? Currently they send a message to users who post such content and tell them to seek help. They also will point them to suicide hotline phone numbers. Could social media sites do more than this to help prevent suicides? When suicide notes are posted, should they be allowed stay up even if the person has ended their life, like in the case with Kate von Roeder? Or do they need to be taken down because they may be triggering or “glorify” suicides and self-harm? If the deceased didn’t want their post to be censored, should we honor that? It’s a new problem that doesn’t have a clear answer at this time.