Thursday, February 21, 2008

The internet is for suicide

The British technophobe media are having a field day. As a result of the tragic series of suicides in the Welsh town of Bridgend (17 since last year), some sectors of the mainstream media have been quick to allocate the blame on the internet in general, and social networking sites in particular. The Daily Express has been particularly keen on finding an online link to the suicide cluster, quoting psychotherapist and media expert Lucy Beresford as saying: "What could be going on is that adolescents are sharing and describing experiences on the internet." Notice how the modal auxiliary verb is turned into an assertion by the press. The Daily Mail had already made the connection before the latest death (yes, the same Daily Mail that is now reporting on yet another Maddie sighting in the company of yet another swarthy-looking man). Even newspapers that should know better have joined the fray. The Times made a point of commenting on the fact that a few of the suicide victims had left wishes in the Bebo pages of some of the other victims. Then it has links to a video called "Is an e-suicide cult sweeping the UK?" Loaded question much? Then there is a discussion in their blog section, where people are asked "Does the internet cause copycat suicides?" Although the discussion in that comment section is balanced, you do find the odd gem, such as the statement: "The Internet does not cause suicides, but it does facilitate it."

However tragic this event is, those same newspapers are not keen to report that overall, suicide is at a 30-year low, or that there seems to be very little connection to the internet other than the fact that the Bebo sites of some of the victims have been used as memorials. Journalists should have the phrase "correlation does not mean causation" stuck on a yellow post-it note in front of their monitors. A large number of teenagers in the UK are using Bebo, and a large number of them listen to music. Hey, iTunes kills! Shut it down!

Seriously though, I often wonder if the journalists writing these reports have actually used the technology. If they had, they would realise that most Bebo profiles are not accessible to people outside the community, and even then, only people in the same school can have access to them. However, I am heartened by the fact that some reports have indeed pointed out that copycat suicide is not a new phenomenon (the well-known Wherther Effect). It is also encouraging to see other reasoned opinions.

However, I am waiting for the first politician to call for regulation of social networking sites.


Clive Feather said...

Journalists don't seem to know statistics either.

How many suicides a year would be expected in a town this size? Or, more to the point, what is the probability that at least one town this size in the UK will see at least this number of suicides in this sort of period? In other words, is this just a statistical blip?

[This idea isn't new to me.]

Andres Guadamuz said...

Hi Clive,

Freakonomics is filled with such examples. While suicide clusters do happen, I think that it is possible that this has been a fabricated story.