A Dangerous Web
By Jennifer Huget
You can use the Internet to learn how to make a souffle. To tie flies. To play poker. Or, it turns out, to learn the how-tos of far more disturbing behaviors like eating disorders or even suicide. An alarming study in the April 12 issue of the British Medical Journal shows that people seeking information about suicide are more likely to land on Web sites offering methods of taking one's own life and even encouraging such a deed than on those offering a rescuing hand.
Researchers at the universities of Bristol, Oxford and Manchester devised a dozen simple searches they figured a typical person surfing for suicide information might use. Employing Great Britain's top search engines--Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask--they ran the searches and analyzed the first 10 sites each search yielded.
Of the 240 distinct sites they harvested, 90 were dedicated solely to suicide; half of those sites were deemed by the researchers to encourage, promote or facilitate suicide. Many chat sites, they found, glorified suicide or encouraged suicide pacts.
Even some well-meaning support-and-prevention sites and academic sites provided what the researchers saw as information that a depressed person might misconstrue or misuse.
The study's authors note that non-Internet media reporting of suicides has been shown to influence suicidal behavior, with clusters of copycat suicides (and attempts) following reporting of suicides. But little was known about the Internet's influence in such matters.
An accompanying article points out that there's not a lot a parent or concerned friend can do to limit vulnerable people's access to this dangerous material. First Amendment rights make it hard to keep such stuff off the net (though pro-suicide sites are illegal in Australia, according to the article), and filters and parental-control software are of limited utility. (The National Institute of Mental Health provides useful information about warning signs and suicide prevention.)
It's impossible for a healthy, sound-minded person to fully understand what's going through the head of someone considering suicide. But one would hope that a person in that position might have the wherewithal to absorb this basic fact: The folks urging others to take their own lives haven't taken that step themselves.
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