Disturbing stories about children visiting websites to talk about killing themselves and making suicide pacts in chatrooms are in the news. Mother Liz Taylor has called for a clampdown after her 17-year-old daughter, Carina Stephenson, killed herself after logging onto suicide websites.
While the internet can be an extremely valuable source of assistance for children seeking help, according to the Samaritans, there is a disturbing trend of websites and newsgroups (online discussion groups or message boards) where methods of suicide are analysed by distressed people.
Suicide is the second most common cause of death in adolescents after traffic accidents, although numbers are relatively small. In the UK in 2003, 16 boys and 10 girls under 14 committed suicide. In the 15-24 age group, 453 young men and 128 young women killed themselves. However, the number of people of all ages killing themselves is now falling after rising in the 1980s and 1990s.
Pressures on today’s children are complex. One in 10 children aged five to 16 suffers from a clinical medical disorder, according to the Office for National Statistics. Charity YoungMinds has calculated that a secondary school of 1,000 pupils is likely to include 50 seriously depressed children, 100 suffering significant distress, 10-20 with OCD and five to 10 girls with eating disorders.
Familiar issues still cause the most grief. Problems with school, parents, friends, and girlfriends or boyfriends are the main reasons for young people feeling suicidal, according to a 2003 Samaritans study.
And research shows that almost all children committing suicide are suffering from at least one mental health problem.
The Samaritans say it is well known that information about suicide – whether in books, leaflets, on TV or online – leads to copycat behaviour.
For instance, an Oxford University study in 1999 found that overdoses jumped 17 per cent in the week after a patient attempted suicide using paracetamol on the TV programme Casualty.
At least two books containing detailed descriptions of how to kill yourself are for sale in the UK and easy to track down. Buying them online takes minutes.
Finding suicide newsgroups on the internet is also quick and easy. Discussion on one this week includes precise information on how to kill yourself with cyanide and one posting asks for help on the most efficient way of suicide with a gun.
In January this year, Tony Cunningham, Labour MP for Workington, raised the issue of online suicide debates in the House of Commons. He said that since the late 1990s, there had been a rise in suicide pacts between strangers who meet online worldwide, particularly in Japan but also in places as varied as tropical island Guam and the Netherlands.
Young people are clearly finding and using explicit suicide sites, says John Carr, technology adviser at children’s charity NCH and a member of the government’s internet task force on child protection.
“The internet makes it easy to swap information,” says Carr.
However, he says it would not be possible to ban websites that are run from abroad, although newsgroups could be made inaccessible by asking internet service providers not to list them.
ChildLine and the Samaritans say suicide pacts between children are extremely rare and point out that when a child turns to another with a problem, they usually get help and support.
Suicide websites may be “distasteful” but are not illegal under the 1961 Suicide Act, according to a Home Office spokesperson. Writing a new law to ban harmful suicide websites could outlaw sites offering advice and support to mentally distressed people, she says.
But the government is working with internet service providers and search engine companies to make disturbing sites less accessible to young people.
Methods could include education about the dangers of explicit sites and the benefits of helpful ones.
Search engines are also being encouraged to place sites such as Samaritans or ChildLine high up in searches when people type in “suicide” or “I want to kill myself”. The Samaritans have already arranged this with the Wanadoo search engine and hope others will follow.