Every parent knows that their children are online for a large part of the day. The websites they visit are concealed since their computers are password protected. Parents are well aware that the internet is fertile ground for paedophiles who groom youngsters and lure them into their abusive world.
Children and young people are now frequently warned by the parents, at school and on the media to avoid the pitfalls of responding to people wanting to meet them through chat rooms and such like. Still, some disregard this advice.
An even more sinister development which has only come to attention recently is the presence of pro-suicide sites. In Britain, the death by suicide in 2012 of Tallulah Wilson, aged 15, gripped the attention of the public when the coroner's inquest recently made public her blogs in which she showed photographs of her self-inflicted wounds and conversed about her dark suicidal thoughts.
Rosie Whitaker, another British schoolgirl had also been in touch with pro-suicide websites before she killed herself at the age of 15 a few months before Tallulah. These were read by thousands of fellow bloggers on Tumblr a blogging platform and social network website. As a result this website decided to ban any pro-suicide posts that are drawn to its attention, although it does not block such comments, per se.
There are a number of pro-suicide websites out there. A study of these, published in the 'British Medical Journal' in 2008 found that of the suicide sites looked at, more glorified suicide than offering help in preventing it.
Some were dedicated to describing the personal accounts of those that failed in their attempts, others displayed photographs of self-injury. Some discussed the pros and cons of various methods and gave specific instructions on how, for example, to shoot oneself. Suicide was portrayed as acceptable and glamorous.
On one website the authors of the study found three people who were displaying diaries that amounted to a long suicide note, and two of these are reported as having taken their own lives.
The chatrooms on some of these sites directly encouraged people to take their own lives and facilitated suicide pacts. Suicide notes, death certificates and photographs of the deceased were posted on others. Any person entering the chatroom who tries to discourage suicide had their membership terminated.
Some comments which I found in response to the above study demonstrate the anger and despair of those engaged with these sites: "Life is vastly overrated. It is pointless suffering. If you can't see that, you're deluded or stupid, and your opinion is irrelevant"; "These knee-jerk anti-suicide clowns are to be spit on"; "F**k 'helping others'. People are stupid, boring, worthless trash. And what do I give a f**k if someone 'has it worse'? I don't care about their problems, I care about mine".
There were many more in that vein.
It is tempting to think that these websites cause suicide. But this is an oversimplification and an effort at trying to comprehend the incomprehensibility of suicide. The reasons for any individual deciding to end their life are likely to be multifaceted. The information that is available on the high profile cases who had been involved in pro-suicide websites confirms this. Some had eating disorders or depression, they also had suffered losses in their lives and had complicated relationships at home or in their schools. These were clearly vulnerable young people and if the comments shown above clearly point to anything it is to searing anger and isolation.
The lonely, hurt individuals that seem to populate these websites of despair are undoubtedly trying to find solace from kindred spirits. They are vulnerable in the extreme. The fact that they have engaged in "conversations" on these sites before taking their lives does not mean they are necessarily the cause of this.
There is simply an association and there is no way of knowing if they would have taken their lives had such websites not been available.
The fact that suicide rates in teenagers in Britain has diminished in recent years, despite the growing accessibility of these sites, suggest that their role may be peripheral in causing suicide.
On the other hand, much more information and research is needed to answer this question.
Maybe the pro-suicide websites are not the cause of suicide but their failure to offer any positive reason for continuing with life suggests that they may not be helping much either. The question is, can we afford to take any chance on this?