Livestream suicides: Does it influence our kids?

Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts.

A cardinal rule of parenting has always been to limit children’s exposure to violence. This has been evidenced with television and movies since the 1960s, with the advent of the “R-rating,” signifying persistent and intense violence. Today, many parents struggle to limit their children’s exposure to violent video games or to music with lyrics that are derogatory or violent, even with parental advisories that signify explicit content.

Now, with the advent of Facebook Live, social media is another avenue for our youth to unexpectedly view violence. Since it began in 2015, more than more than 45 acts of violence--including suicide—have been livestreamed for the world to see.

Livestream suicides greatly increase the number of persons exposed, which increases the possibility of contagion—the phenomenon through which exposure to a suicide can lead to another’s suicide attempt. This is particularly troublesome among adolescents who may already be struggling, and perhaps contemplating suicide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that contagion is increased when news coverage sensationalizes or glorifies the suicide or the person attempting suicide, provides information on how to complete a suicide, or provides coverage that is ongoing--all of which are also concerns when suicides are livestreamed.

For this reason, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and other leading suicide prevention partners created guidelines for media reporting of suicide. Key recommendations include:

  • Don’t include photos or videos of a suicide death
  • Don’t include the location of the death
  • Don’t include the method by which a person died or attempted suicide.

Unfortunately, livestream suicides go against what the aforementioned research suggests. Contrary to what most parents and educators may believe, adolescents who lose very close loved ones to suicide are not most at risk for contagion—they see and feel the pain of that loss first hand. The greatest risk is for those exposed to a suicide, but who are not extremely close family or friends—in other words, social media viewers. Our kids might be watching a suicide attempt in action without us even knowing it.

Meanwhile, Facebook administrators see both the risk of contagion and the potential to save a life, and are working diligently to find the right balance between the two. As an example, picture yourself staring at your computer screen as you peruse social media and a livestream video pops up of an old friend from summer camp preparing to attempt suicide. What if you can help her? What if you can reach out via social media and remind her of that time she stuffed all those marshmallows in her mouth to look like a chipmunk and everyone laughed about it for weeks? What if you can thank her for being there for you when your mother was fighting cancer and you had felt so alone? Would these things be enough to save her life?

You see that she is in her parents’ house and you have this address tucked in a drawer from the birthday card she sent you last year. Could you save her life by calling the police and giving them her address? Is a complicated benefit of livestream that it could give you this chance to reach out and help her? Don’t you want that chance?

Facebook consultant and suicide prevention expert Daniel Reidenberg, CEO of SAVE, believes that the opportunity to help another just might present itself. For this reason, Facebook’s policies and procedures currently require that staff leave up livestream suicide videos until nothing left can be done to potentially save a person’s life. At that point, personnel are instructed to take the video down. Facebook has hired an additional 3,000 staff in order to fulfil these responsibilities and will also rely on artificial intelligence to pick up on posts that indicate self-harm or suicide. Suicide prevention resources can then be provided to the user via a pop-up message on their screen along with options for chatting with suicide prevention experts via Messenger.

Stay tuned for my next article on what parents can do to address this issue.

Erbacher is also a school psychologist for the Delaware County Intermediate Unit. She is co-author of the text Suicide in Schools: A Practitioner’s Guide to Multi-level Prevention, Assessment, Intervention, and Postvention.