Last week, I discussed how 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. However, livestream suicides go against what research suggests about suicide contagion. 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.
Because of this, 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. 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. Aside from Facebook’s efforts, parents may ask what they can do.
First, it is important for you to be aware of what sites your children use for social media. For example, adolescents might be more likely to use Instagram or Snapchat rather than Facebook. Find out what kinds of posts your children make and who they follow or are friends with on these sites. Consider creating an account yourself so you can be aware of what your children are viewing.
And, it’s very important to open the lines of communication and talk with your child. Have discussions on the risks of social media, on appropriate posting, and on what to do should they see something concerning on a site. Have open and honest conversations about how viewing violence could harm them, such as giving them nightmares or unnecessary fears, and ask your children what they would do if they saw a friend who needed help. Share some suggestions on how to help this friend, such as alerting you or another adult; offering the friend support; contacting the social media site itself; or contacting 9-1-1.
Finally, educate your children on the warning signs of suicide. While the risk of contagion is frightening, perhaps livestream social media also offers the opportunity to give our children some choice and control to help someone suffering and potentially save a life.
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.