Right now, there is concern by parents in the UK that social media is responsible for the recent suicides of dozens of young teens in that country . Discussion is ramping up amongst lawmakers about how best to legislate social media companies to remove and ban all content that may promote self-harm. Legislators are as concerned as parents. There is hope they can work with social media companies to find a solution to this endemic problem that still respects freedom of the internet, but where sufficient controls can be put in place to effectively guard it.
Drawing on my former experience working in privacy, I’m not sure if this is wishful thinking on the part of lawmakers or not, but as a mom whose daughter died by suicide in 2005 after viewing content on a self-harm site that offered methods on how to complete suicide, I can relate to the fears parents face today, where almost anything can be readily accessed online. I can also appreciate the difficulty experts may be facing establishing law to ban this content, yet still protect the rights of individuals to access information.
In 2005, I didn’t know sites of this type existed or that my daughter had been accessing them. It was only when the police confirmed her online activity with us after confiscating her computer that I found out, making sure they wiped it clean of all related searches before returning it two months later. Because I was desperate to find out what information my daughter had been looking for in the hope there would be a clue as to why she had chosen to die, with a little technical help I gained access to one site. There, I combed through strings of messages posted by dozens of users, searching for any alias that may have been my daughter. All I found was a community of broken people of all ages from all walks of life, existing in a dark world of pain that they didn’t know what to do with. All content exchanged on the site was solely to encourage suicide and offer methods to complete it.
For the brief time that I scoured it after getting over this additional shock about my daughter’s activity in something like this, I was reticent to become part of such a dark underworld only to share the pain of losing my child to the one thing everyone there was eager to experience: death. While I was grateful to gain a sneak peek into the thinking of people who wanted to die to try and better understand my daughter’s choice of suicide (mostly they felt hopeless and believed they wouldn’t be missed, which I later discovered was how she felt), I decided it wasn’t the right place for me to make my views known.
Though I wanted to scream at everyone on that message board that despite their despair (I was drowning in it too), I could assure them that they were loved and would be missed by their families if they died. That the devastation their death would heap on so many others was something they needed to know about. Yet, I didn’t do this. I was afraid I would receive a cyber tar and feathering if it was discovered I had gained access to a private space where I wasn’t welcome, only to try and change someone’s mind about dying.
Is Social Media Killing our Kids?
Today, things are different. We are talking publicly about mental health and suicide and raising concerns about the all too frequent deaths of young people. Though, linking harmful online content to their suicides is something new.
Harmful content is the underbelly of the beast that social media has become. I believe that the same or worse harmful information that contributed to my daughter’s suicide in 2005 (though then there were no graphic images to accompany it) is continuing to influence anyone who is vulnerable and at great risk to self-harm. Especially our kids, who in my view are susceptible to acting more impulsively than adults for various reasons. (All it can take is one click.) In 2005, this issue wasn’t being talked about. The internet was still something of a dark horse.
I’m all for laws that compel social media companies to remove and ban all harmful content from their platforms. I believe that they should be held accountable for their part in the safety of the internet. Where minors are concerned, parents must take responsibility for the safe use of it. They should know what information their kids are accessing. Though harmful content shouldn’t be available to tempt them at all, it is imperative that parents educate themselves about what self-harm content really is and how dangerous it can be. It really can kill our kids.
Parents – talk to your kids!
While I can’t go back and change things for my daughter, I’d have given almost anything to have known before her death what she had been accessing online. Finding out later was devastating and made me feel as powerless as parents feel today going through the same thing.
Parents who still have the chance – talk to your kids! About how they are feeling, what they are thinking and doing. This can go a long way to help them feel like they are being heard, respected and loved. It’s safer not to assume that you know. (I found out the hard way despite the close relationship I enjoyed with my daughter).
Social Media companies can do more
The fact that social media companies admit they can always do more when it comes to enforcement and security of their platforms suggests legislators can do more too. The UK government is developing a white paper addressing online harms that will include content on suicide and self-harm. While this may be a great start towards starting a larger conversation, action is the real key. We can and need to take back our online power.
For more about my journey surviving suicide and child loss you can read more here: