For people at risk for suicide, the Internet can be a saving grace — it gives easy access to suicide prevention counselors and bounties of social networks where Web users can find comfort and encouragement, health experts say.
But the Internet could also be a place where those contemplating suicide find information that pushes them over the edge. It can be a haven for cyber-bullies, has the potential to popularize suicides (prompting "copy-cats" to take their own lives) and hosts suicide forums, where people discuss suicide options, said researchers from around the United Kingdom in an article published this week in the journal Lancet.
The challenge facing researchers is to measure the Net's impact on suicide and find ways to wield its power to help people, the experts said. Because the medium is ever-changing — there will always be new sites and new methods of communication — it's difficult to pin down the impact of the Internet.
But one goal should be to understand the Internet-surfing habits of people thinking about suicide — why they use the Internet, what could help them and what has the ability to be destructive, they said.
"I believe that the Internet has the potential to significantly increase or decrease suicide, depending on the nature of the messages, who they reach, and other considerations," said Steven J. Stack, a professor at Wayne State University in Michigan who studies suicidal behavior and attitudes but was not involved in the new article.
Suicide is the 11th most common cause of death in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The Internet can fuel suicide in three main ways: by providing a tool for online bullies to target victims , by allowing easy access to forums where suicide is discussed and by spreading news of suicide faster than television or newspapers, according to the researchers.
There is limited research on the Internet's role in suicide prevention and motivation, Stack told MyHealthNewsDaily.
The danger of "copy-cats" – people motivated to commit suicide when they learn of other suicides online – is unmeasured, he said.
There isn't even much research on the impact of TV and film on copy-cat suicides, and those media have been around a lot longer, he said. However, even with the lack of measured evidence, researchers know the Internet has the potential to negatively affect those at risk of suicide , Stack said.
"I speculate that, to the extent that chat rooms and other new Internet channels of communication focus on such stories, they would act to increase such copycat effects," Stack said. But "as far as I know, no one has attempted to measure such impacts to date" because of the difficulty or studying them.
Just under one-fifth of suicide-related websites promote suicide, according to a 2008 study in the British Medical Journal. About one-fourth of sites offer support and counseling help for people thinking of taking their own lives, the same study found.
How the Internet helps
Still, there are ways the Internet could help instead of harm. Edinburgh University Professor Stephen Platt wrote in the new article that he didn't think suicide forums should be outlawed, but rather tapped so researchers can learn what motivates people seeking suicide advice, and devise ways to help them.
The Internet can also connect suicide prevention counselors with people considering suicide , he said.
Already, there are prevention measures in place on the Web. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number currently comes up at the top of a Google search for the word "suicide."
Samaritans, a U.K.-based charity that supports people at risk of suicide, has sponsored a similar feature on Google searches done in Great Brittan, according to the article.
"We shouldn't be concerned about only the negative effects," Platt wrote in the article. "The positive potential has hardly been tapped."
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