teens are live-streaming their suicides at an alarming rate

And Silicon Valley executives need to step up.

by Erica Euse
12 July 2017, 2:50pm

"I'm just tired my life pointless I don't wanna do this anymore," Nakia Venant wrote to a friend on Facebook. Hours later the 14-year-old logged onto Facebook Live, the social network's popular live-streaming feature, to broadcast her suicide. Thousands of viewers tuned into the nearly two-hour-long stream, as the Miami teen made a homemade noose from a scarf and hungherself in the bathroom of her foster parent's home. She was the third person in the United States to live-stream her suicide in a month.

Venant is part of an alarming trend of young people around the world who are choosing to live-stream their deaths using social media. Just three weeks before Venant's suicide, 12-year-old Katelyn Nicole Davis hung herself outside of her family's home in Georgia while using a similar platform called Live.me and since her death there have been others. In May a 19-year-old woman in France recorded herself jumping in front of a train while streaming on Periscope and earlier this week, 15-year-old Isaiah Gonzalez hung himself while recording on his phone.

"If they are used to working through the things that are most emotional and painful by putting them out there for the world then it is not really a far cry for them to do the most painful thing [suicide] publicly," explained Dr. Jonathan Singer, a board member at the American Association of Suicidology and associate professor at Loyola University in Chicago.

Teens livestreaming their suicides is actually not entirely new. One of the earliest instances dates back to 2008, when 19-year-old Abraham Biggs recorded himself overdosing on pills using a now-defunct streaming site called Justin.tv. But, with popular user-generated streaming services, such as live video on Instagram, Periscope on Twitter, and Facebook Live being used to record public suicides more than ever, it has become harder for social media platforms to figure out just how to monitor them.

"The more users are posting every aspect of their lives online, including criminally heinous conduct, the more companies have to take a proactive approach to content moderation rather than relying just on users to flag content for review," Hemanshu Nigam, founder of SSP Blue, an advisory firm for online safety, told The New York Times. Currently, most social networks rely on users to notify them of alarming posts.

After a series of travesties including suicides, rape, and murder were streamed using Facebook Live earlier this year, founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would be hiring 3,000 more moderators in addition to the 4,500 already employed to review videos and flagged content. He also shared that the company is testing artificial intelligence that can detect potentially dangerous videos more quickly.

"We're going to make it simpler to report problems to us, faster for our reviewers to determine which posts violate our standards and easier for them to contact law enforcement if someone needs help," Zuckerberg wrote in a post addressing the issue.

In a recent conversation with Kara Swisher on the "Re/Code De/Code" podcast, Kevin Systrom of Instagram also talked about his personal mission to make vulnerable teens more safe online. "What I decided six months ago or so is that we are gonna have an entire group of people that literally work on making the internet a safer place," he said.

As Dr. Singer and other experts point out, there are several reasons why a teenager might choose to commit suicide online, but for some it can be a call for help. Increasingly new resources are popping up in the digital space like 7 Cups of Tea, which offers those struggling with mental health issues access to an online community for support and advice in times of need, and KoKo, which can monitor social media posts to detect self-harm or suicidal intentions and provide immediate help.

Unfortunately, not many teens have found this kind of support when turning to social networks. Earlier this year, a viral social media trend known as "Blue Whale Challenge" was spreading online. The challenge, which started in Russia, encourages teens to complete a series of dangerous tasks before ultimately killing themselves.

With online suicides it is common for viewers to egg others on like in the case of Abraham Biggs, where many taunted the teen through video comments saying things like "go ahead and do it."

As these platforms try to figure out the best way to deal with mental health crises, experts worry that this growing trend will cause what they call suicide contagion, or exposure to self-harm that can increase suicidal behaviors. This same concern was raised after the release of the popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which depicts the fictional story of a high school girl who kills herself and may have already inspired one death. Suicide is already the third-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 14, and the second-leading cause of death among those ages 15 to 34, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many times these suicide videos are shared online even after the live-stream has ended. Katelyn Nicole Davis's remained on Facebook and YouTube for days, where it was viewed by thousands of people and is still available on some sites.

"We know that for teenagers, the likelihood of doing something that someone else did is much greater than for adults," said Dr. Singer. "So, having this type of step-by-step manual in how to die online is a bad idea. It's certainly bad for teenagers who are more likely to engage in that and puts those who are already at risk at higher risk."

Still, Facebook, the world's largest social network, has defended its decision to allow these live-streams in hopes that will provide time to get the at-risk person the help they need.

"Some people may say we should cut off the stream the moment there's a hint of somebody talking about suicide, but what we learned from the experts and what they emphasized to us is that cutting off the stream too early removes the chance of someone being able to reach out and provide help," Jennifer Guadagno, Facebook's lead researcher for suicide prevention toldUSA Today.

When a 15-year-old girl in Georgia attempted to kill herself on Facebook Live in May, people viewing the stream did take action and alerted emergency services who were able to save her life, but that is not always the case. Experts have also found that these live deaths often cause a "bystander effect," which means when more people are watching, individuals are less likely to intervene. This is especially dangerous when at-risk teens are using the platform in the hopes someone will help them before it's too late.

It is still too early to determine what kind of effects these live-stream suicides may have on young people. Recent studies have shown that social media can have a negative effect on mental health in general, but it can also provide a powerful resource for reaching at-risk youth.

"Social media has been a very powerful tool in helping teens connect with each other," Dr. Singer said. "I think people are just struggling to figure out how to use it for good." 


Text Erica Euse
Still from The Virgin Suicides via hyacinthoides @Flickr Creative Commons

mental health
Social Media
Teen Suicide
Erica Euse