Suicides and the Internet: a controversial relation

Written by Davide Andreoletti, SUPSI

In this post we discuss some of the relations between the use of Internet and the plaguing phenomenon of suicides.

The number of people committing suicides is alarming, with countries that reach up to 80 suicides over 100000 citizens per year[1]. Recently, several cases of suicide teenagers come under the spotlight of the media due to a possible link with an online game, called The Blue Whale, diffused on the Russian Social Network VKontakte[2].

According to a report of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta dated May 2016, roughly 130 teenagers who were member of suspicious social network groups had taken their own lives. The claim of the report’s authors was that the owners of the groups worked with their victims by proposing challenging tasks aiming at destabilizing their psyche and, after a precise number of days, at inducing them into committing suicide.

For the sake of truth, it is necessary to say that a direct responsibility of the Blue Whale game could not be clearly found for any of such suicides[3]. In all cases, investigators are taking this hypothesis in serious consideration[4].

These dramatic events give us the change to discuss about the relation between the phenomenon of suicide and the use of the Internet, and of online Social Networks in particular.

Criminals behind the scenes deeply differ from Social Engineers, both concerning their goals (i.e., inducing victims into harming themselves instead of stealing data to compromise cyber-systems) and the techniques used (e.g., the concept of phishing e-mails does not exist in this scenario).

However, it is arguable that some overlaps in their approaches can be found, mainly related to the use of social media (e.g., how to hook the victims) and of manipulation strategies (e.g., by identifying the most vulnerable people).

As far as the former is concerned, the use of the cyberspace to reach very large audiences is somehow similar (e.g., by spreading malicious contents), as viral games and apps may increase dependencies and prevent employees and citizens from considering the risks related to certain online activities (this effect is of paramount importance to DOGANA as well).

As far as the latter is concerned, criminals are expected to employ techniques derived from the memetic theories[5], which are widely diffused in the social engineering landscape as well. According to such theories, it is possible to hack a victim by identifying and then manipulating the basic ideas that build up her psyche. These ideas include the values system and atavisms influencing the victim’s mind-set. Important authors (e.g., Borrroughs, Ballard, Asimov and Stephenson) have proposed complete descriptions of effective memetic engineering operations[6].  

The Internet is just a medium where many activities take place[7], and it is hard to assess to what extend the Internet can be used to influence suicide-related behaviours [8]

Concerning the factual information about suicides (e.g., techniques on how to commit suicide[9]), it has been proved how easy could be to come in contact with pro-suicide sites and chat-rooms discussing related issues[10]. However, few of them explicitly instigate to suicide[11].

The evidence that the Internet (and the Social Media in particular) might influence suicide-related behaviour6 is mainly based on the fact that they are formidable platforms for content sharing, and a real connection between some categories of contents and the ideation of suicides has been proved to exist6. For example, the aim of self-harm videos is to desensitize their viewers from shocking images, and then cause disinhibition[12]. This is clearly linked with the Blue Whale, as watching such videos is part of the challenge. 

Among the events occurring in the cyber-space, it is possible to identify the cyber-suicide pacts[13] [14] (i.e., people who don’t know each other meet online and decide to kill themselves) and the cyber-bullying, which proved to considerably increase the risk of suicide among young people[15].

The community-oriented nature of some social platforms enables the creation of groups explicitly pro-suicide (see the Blue Whale case). This has raised serious concerns in Russia, where the government recently approved a law that modifies the criminal code to severely punish who engage teenagers in activities threating their lives[16].

At the same time, the Internet can be exploited to help people in danger in various ways. For example, people may discuss about their problems while being free from the fear of judgment (e.g., in online forums hidden behind anonymity). Social Networks as well offer significant potential to prevent suicide. In fact, many people express their emotional status online rather than in the real life. This might allow to react to explicit expression of suicidal ideation[17]. At the technological level, machine learning solutions have been proposed to classify Tweets according to suicidality categories[18].

 

[1] http://www.aljazeera.com/blogs/europe/2010/09/2629.html

[2] https://vk.com

[3] https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/worldnews/3003805/blue-whale-suicide-game-online-victims

[4] https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/3002981/blue-whale-game-suicide-russia-rules-challenge-social-media

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memetic_engineering

[6] Francesco Ianneo, Memetica. Genetica e virologia di idee, credenze e mode, Ed. Castelvecchi, 2005]

[7] Bell, Vaughan. "Online information, extreme communities and internet therapy: Is the internet good for our mental health?." Journal of mental health 16.4 (2007): 445-457.

[8] Luxton, David D., Jennifer D. June, and Jonathan M. Fairall. "Social media and suicide: a public health perspective." American journal of public health 102.S2 (2012): S195-S200.

[9] Recupero, Patricia R., Samara E. Harms, and Jeffrey M. Noble. "Googling suicide: surfing for suicide information on the Internet." The Journal of clinical psychiatry (2008).

[10] Biddle, Lucy, et al. "Suicide and the internet." BMJ: British Medical Journal 336.7648 (2008): 800.

[11] Mok, Katherine, et al. "An analysis of the content and availability of information on suicide methods online." Journal of consumer health on the internet 20.1-2 (2016): 41-51.

[12] Suler, John. "The online disinhibition effect." Cyberpsychology & behavior 7.3 (2004): 321-326.

[13] Rajagopal, Sundararajan. "Suicide pacts and the internet: Complete strangers may make cyberspace pacts." BMJ: British Medical Journal 329.7478 (2004): 1298.

[14] Ozawa-de Silva, Chikako. "Too lonely to die alone: Internet suicide pacts and existential suffering in Japan." Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 32.4 (2008): 516-551.

[15] Hinduja, Sameer, and Justin W. Patchin. "High-tech cruelty." Educational Leadership 68.5 (2011): 48-52.

[16] https://themoscowtimes.com/news/bill-outlawing-pro-suicide-groups-in-social-networks-adopted-by-russian-parliament-58098

[17] Robinson, Jo, et al. "Social media and suicide prevention: a systematic review." Early Interv Psychiatry 10.2 (2015): 103-21.

[18] O'Dea, Bridianne, et al. "Detecting suicidality on Twitter." Internet Interventions 2.2 (2015): 183-188.

 

by Davide Andreoletti (SUPSI)

 




This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme, under grant agreement No. 653618