Internet-assisted suicide?

One of the main themes in Frontline’s documentary “Growing Up Online” was that the media has overblown the threat of online predators, while giving short shrift to the internet’s effects on teen behavior.

The former may be true, but the latter isn’t. In particular, over the past few months the media has directed much attention to the internet’s role in several teen suicides.

One such suicide was a major focus of the Frontline special. 13-year-old Ryan Halligan hung himself in 2003 after getting mercilessly cyberbullied, and finally meeting a fellow depressed kid who encouraged him to commit suicide.

Still more attention has gone to the suicide of Megan Meier, which made national headlines last November when it was revealed to have been spurred by an adult’s cyberbullying.

And just in the past week, the media spotlight has fallen upon a string of 13 allegedly internet-inspired suicides in south Wales. Police suspect that these young people were motivated to take their lives by a desire to be “immortalized” in virtual memorials on the social network Bebo.com.

These are wrenching stories. But are they isolated incidents or a worrying trend? There’s no doubt that, to quote the Frontline piece, “The computer has become a new weapon in the arsenal of adolescence.” But the media has a dangerous way of turning problems into mass hysteria.

In response to the Wales suicides, blogger Constantine von Hoffman wrote “When I was in college there was a report of a wave of teens hanging themselves on Long Island. If memory serves experts offered theories ranging from the then-nascent MTV to the ever popular alienation.”

The popular women’s blog Jezebel.com was less jaded: “can’t we f***ing BAN MYSPACE, and all its bastard social networking stepchildren, already? What redeeming social value do these sites have?” The comments to that post indicated that many readers agreed.

Clearly that’s an extreme reaction, and unlikely to happen any time soon. Yet for the most part, the reaction to cyberbullying has been focused on new laws and crackdowns.

Yet we have to remember that although teen suicide is rising, it is not a new phenomenon. Even Parry Aftab, executive director of the prominent anti-cyberbullying organization WiredSafety.org, acknowledged to Frontline that “No one really knows how many of the suicides you can tie to the Internet.” Blogger Paul Smith wryly noted that one might even argue that Romeo and Juliet glamorizes suicide.

Personally, my main problem with the Frontline piece was that, while it made a commendable effort to balance fear with skepticism, it paid scant attention to the real positive goods that the internet can provide young people.

Indeed, a recent study from the University of Alberta has suggested that the internet is an effective way to offer psychological help to depressed teens.

Perhaps then, in the famous words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

-Jesse Baer