Internet audience may have led to suicide - doctor

01:43, Jan 31 2009

Access to a blog and a webcam probably contributed to the on-line suicide of Abraham Biggs Jr, 19, said Dr Jon Shaw, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

Biggs, of Pembroke Pines, in Florida, took a lethal mixture of three drugs on Wednesday, then blogged about it while a webcam broadcast his actions, including his death.

"There's an exhibitionistic quality to this, a strange dance between the suicide and the audience. He's doing it for the group in a very complicated process we don't really understand. Would he have carried it out without the audience? Probably not."

The webcam might have contributed to the psychological distance that allowed other bloggers to urge, even taunt, the young man to go ahead with the suicide, Shaw said.

"Even a virtual distance can dehumanise the victim," Shaw said. "They're electronically distant from him. It's like a video game. It protects them from feeling individual responsibility."

Worse, the way in which the suicide was done could trigger copycat acts by other teens, said Dr David Shaffer, director of the Department of Child Psychiatry at Columbia University. Particularly harmful is that the young man chatted about his intentions almost casually, he said.


"This kind of thing has a devastating impact on more suicides," Shaffer noted. "At any one time quite a lot of people are walking around thinking about it. Any video showing it as heroic or romantic or glamorous could reduce the anxiety people might feel about suicide. It becomes a respectable behaviour and lowers the threshold of suicide.

"You really want to signal that he's not as others, that he was in some way psychologically ill. It's a safe bet. Over 95 percent of people in this situation meet the medical criteria for psychiatric illness," he said.

Shaffer urged teens or others who encounter someone on a blog who is threatening suicide not to simply urge them to desist, but rather to try to engage them in conversation.

"They should say, 'Hey, can we talk?' Get him to tell what's going on. If he can tell his story, his urge to suicide might be diminished."

Jeffrey Cole, a professor who studies technology's effects on society at the University of Southern California told the New York Times that online communities "are like the crowd outside the building with the guy on the ledge.

"Sometimes there is someone who gets involved and tries to talk him down. Often the crowd chants, `Jump, jump'. They can enable suicide or help prevent it."

Prof Cole noted that in the case of the death of Alethea Gates, a young New Zealand woman who died after using Google to read about different methods of suicide, her parents did not blame the internet but said they wished that the Google search had turned up links to suicide prevention Web sites.

In effect, they wished the Web had shouted `step back from the ledge' instead of `jump'.

Many Google searches that include the word suicide now include sponsored links to prevention web sites.

Ms Gates, 27, died in Auckland, in January and her parents, Neville and Faye, have since tried to persuade internet service providers and politicians to try to block suicide (and anorexia) enablement websites.

Many suicide enablement websites are based overseas, and only the United Kingdom specifically forbids them. In addition, France has banned anorexia promotion websites.

After Ms Gates, a student teacher, and suffering from depression, ended her own life, her brothers traced the websites that she'd used on the family computer.

Vodafone, the country's largest internet service provider has said a filtering system similar to a child pornography blocker being trialled by the Department of Internal Affairs could be one option.

Vodafone told the Sunday Star-Times it would be happy to look into blocking sites with suicide information, but it would need a "central body to provide and regularly update a list of sites to be blocked".

Merryn Statham, director of Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand, said all manner of organisations would be happy to help with a list.

The death of Mr Biggs, who posted about his "troubles and doubts" online because he did not want to talk to anyone about them in person, involved different links to the internet.

Investigators said that when he posted a suicide note and listed the drug cocktail he intended to consume, he was "egged on" by strangers who encouraged him to swallow the antidepressant pills that eventually killed him.

On blogs and forums last week, some people wondered whether Mr. Biggs had hoped that by broadcasting his suicide, he would attract attention and cause someone to intervene. Viewers eventually called the police, but only after he had lapsed into unconsciousness.

In Arizona in 2003, a man overdosed on drugs while writing about his actions in a chat room. In Britain last year, a man hanged himself while chatting online and webcasting. In both cases, other users reportedly encouraged the individual.

Mr. Biggs' family has said he suffered from bipolar disorder and was being treated for depression, and his father, Abraham Biggs Sr, told The Associated Press, he was appalled by the lack of responsiveness on the part of the users and the operators.

"As a human being, you don't watch someone in trouble and sit back and just watch", he said, before suggesting that "some kind of regulation is necessary."