Are Russian internet communities responsible for wave of child suicides?
For several days recently, Russian media outlets, one after another, ran sensational investigative reports about social network communities that allegedly push children to suicide. RBTH explains what we know so far about the activities of these groups.
On May 16 the liberal Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta ran a piece on an investigation about so-called “death groups” in Russia’s most popular social network VKontakte – communities that have allegedly groomed minors to take their own lives in a wave of suicides that has shocked the nation… Read the full article here
Dr. Forshee’s Response:
Social media has swept the world for more than a decade, and is only gaining momentum. Review of the current literature reflects that extreme communities, such as those involved in pro-suicide online groups, have likely been occurring internationally since shortly after the inception of social media. While this extreme pro-suicide internet community does not currently appear to be as predominantly clustered in the United States as it is in Russia (though it does exist), research indicates that webcam suicides, or live suicides with an online audience, have become a matter of concern among adolescents in the United States (Birbal, R., Maharajh, Birbal, Clapperton, Jarvis, Ragoonath & Uppalapati, 2009).
In my professional experience, it is not uncommon to come across individuals, specifically children and adolescents, who have utilized the internet as a means of researching methods and recipes for suicide. It has also been in my professional experience that other types of extreme communities, in addition to pro-suicide communities, do exist. One popular extreme community that comes to mind are the pro-eating disorder sites, showing graphic photos of nearly translucent and frail bodies, encouraging and teaching others how to achieve such status. It is also not uncommon for the “leaders” of such extreme communities to sling insults and demean those who join. Similar behaviors have been identified in those reportedly leading the online pro-suicide communities.
Internet and social media is easily accessed by anyone, especially minors with lack of parental oversight. For children and adolescents who already experience non-suicidal self-injury, or ambivalent or fleeting suicidal thoughts, these pro-suicide forums may at times act as a space for suicidal identities to be tested. Ultimately, these normalizing and reinforcing experiences may reduce any doubts or fears of suicide that these individuals may have once had. Current research suggests that interactions in these groups may foster peer pressure to die by suicide, encourage them to idolize those who have completed suicide, or facilitate suicide pacts (Luxton, June & Fairall, 2012). Overall, children and adolescents are especially susceptible to such extreme communities, especially those who have a predisposition to psychiatric illness, or who have a history of trauma, abuse or neglect. Developmentally, this age group is at an even heightened vulnerability to such extreme communities because their self-concept has yet to be fully developed, rendering them easily influenced by others.
The benefit of anonymity over the internet creates an optimal environment for the sharing of certain subjects and gathering of social groups, in joint agreement of the content. These extreme
communities are typically joined by those who are in search of acceptance and normalization relating to behaviors or beliefs that mainstream society would otherwise label as unacceptable. In general, individuals are more likely to adopt behaviors and attitudes when they believe that others are like them. The fear of interpersonal rejection may become lessened, making it easier for the individual to adopt behaviors and attitudes of others.
While the reported leaders of the pro-suicide groups indicated to your team that they did not mean to create the two deadliest pro-suicide groups in Russia, the phenomenon of contagion may be at the forefront of the cluster of suicides reportedly correlated with these pro-suicide communities. Contagion of ideas is perpetuated by collective emotions, and subsequently, collective behavior. The internet and social media outlets are breeding grounds for contagion and suicide clusters when susceptible individuals get together in an anonymous social media forum, and interact with those who have similar shared emotions, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Due to the nearly instantaneous spread of videos and ideas electronically, contagion and clusters as seen with these pro-suicide groups are likely to become increasingly prevalent.
While attempting to shut down these sites may appear to be helpful in containing this problem, legal complexities associated with monitoring the internet may make this difficult to regulate for the long-term. Contagion is best reduced by identifying those most susceptible to the phenomenon of contagion, and implementing appropriate post-vention plans (actions taken after a suicide) in communities where these incidents occur.
Danielle Forshee, Psy.D, LCSW
Clinical Consultant to the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide