/ 20 February 2014

Social media fans suicidal fire

Suicide is the cause for almost one in 10 teenage deaths in South Africa and there is growing evidence that social media sites are to blame, at least in part, for this ever increasing figure.

According to a 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) study, the department of journalism, media and philosophy analysed the content of “emo” teenage groups on Facebook and found there is a connection between adolescent use of social media and the promotion of positive perceptions of suicidal behaviour. "Emo" is an abbreviation for "emotional" and is a "popular teenage subculture, similar to Goth and grunge, which commemorates moody emotions through dark dress, melancholic behaviour and angsty music", according to the study. 

The research revealed a "glorification, normalisation and acceptance" of suicidal behaviours on the social media site.

One post about cutting oneself as a form of self-harm, read: "Cutting cleans the mind and I forget all pains and troubles are forgotten for that moment in time," and another "Cutting is a good way to get out stress. Better than drugs."

According to the study the positive portrayal of self-harm not only has the potential to encourage the behaviour but "may also give teenagers a means to justify their activities based on its acceptance by others within the groups".

Research argues that there is a strong link between self-harming behaviour and suicide: in order for somebody to commit suicide, they have to have a "capability of suicide" and become used to "pain and the fear of death", with which self-harming behaviour helps. According to the findings of the NMMU study, "uncensored and unrestricted online communities" such as Facebook groups may "not be as safe as people believe them to be".

There is also evidence to suggest that spending time on social networking sites could make a person depressed. A 2013 report published on the peer-reviewed online medical journal Plos One found that the more time people spent on Facebook, the less satisfied they felt with themselves and their lives.

Zane Wilson from the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) said children often display warning signs on social media networks before their deaths.  "Eighty percent of teens who attempt to take their lives have given some kind of warning sign such as talk of suicide, dying of self-harm.  We have to realise that the youth is very active on and enthusiastic about social media," she said.

For every successful suicide, there are 20 unsuccessful attempts and youth between the ages of 10 and 19 are at the highest risk, according to a 2012 University of KwaZulu-Natal study.

However, Wilson said social media can also be used as a positive tool to connect teenagers with people who can help them.

Sadag, for example, has a weekly event on Facebook, which connects mental health professionals with the public – mainly teenagers. Their themed Facebook Friday chats allow people to ask questions about topics like depression and suicide and get answers from psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors who they may usually not have access to. 


Get help now 

If you or someone you know is feeling depressed or suicidal, call Sadag’s toll-free 24 hour crisis line on 0800 567 567 or SMS 31393 to get immediate help from one of the organisation’s trained counsellors.

loveLife also provides a toll free contact centre (available on 0800 121 900 or by sending a please call me to 083 323 1023) which  "offers assistance  to teenagers to build their self-esteem and to provide assistance in other social problems they face [including suicide]", according to the organisation’s David Doolah. "loveLife also provides a parent line on 0800 121 100, which parents can phone for assistance on dealing with challenges their children face, including how to cope if they think their child wants to commit suicide," he said.

Ramatamo Sehoai is a Bhekisisa health journalism fellow