How to stop Instagram deaths

“I have no doubt that Instagram helped kill my daughter”.

These are the words of father Ian Russell in the news this week. Ian Russell is the parent of the 14-year-old UK schoolgirl Molly Rose Russell, who recently took her own life. When Molly’s family looked into her Instagram account they found distressing material about depression and suicide.

Molly’s father Ian says he believes Instagram is partly responsible for his daughter’s death.

Suicide Contagion

The case is tragic and Facebook, which owns Instagram, has issued a statement that it “does not allow content that promotes or glorifies self-harm or suicide and will remove content of this kind.” Currently, users can self-police Instagram by tagging posts as inappropriate if they contain self-injury. Yesterday, Facebook pledged to do more on self-harm, in addition to deploying AI technology and running a suicide prevention page.

Is it possible that exposure to online material portraying self-harm or suicidal behaviour could contribute to a distressed individual’s decision to self-harm or take their own life? This was the topic of the subject of my PhD research and thesis.

The answer is almost certainly yes. The phenomenon is known as online ‘suicide contagion’.

Suicide contagion describes the spread of suicide-related behaviour through social networks (online and offline). Evidence suggests that exposure to suicide-related behaviour can facilitate or precipitate similar behaviour in vulnerable individuals already contemplating suicidal behaviour. My own research supports this. As does an increasingly large body of other scientific research.

The effect of exposure to suicide-related behaviour, depending on how it is portrayed, may help normalise or rationalise suicide. This, in turn, may precipitate or facilitate a decision to engage in suicide-related behaviour in distressed individuals contemplating such behaviour. The risk of suicide contagion is believed to be severe and significant, particularly among the young. This has led to the development of guidelines for mitigating and containing the risk of outbreaks of suicide contagion by the WHO, CDC and other bodies. The effect of suicide contagion can be seen in regular spikes in suicide statistics following high profile suicide stories circulating in the media.

So yes, it is possible that Instagram content influences at-risk individuals to self-harm or take their own life. Suicide is already the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds globally. By allowing users to search for suicide-related material on Instagram using (often veiled) hashtag searches, and by suggesting similar accounts to follow, it follows that Instagram could potentially precipitate deliberate self-harm, including suicide.

How to stop Instagram deaths

So what can we do to prevent self-harm and deaths that are possibly facilitated or precipitated by Instagram?

The first ‘option’ as the UK health minister has proposed is to instruct Facebook to remove all self-harm and suicide-related content from its social networks. There are technical, practical, legal and even ethical issues with this. Importantly, the social network can be a valuable source of support for distressed individuals, and flagged posts can alert health professionals to otherwise hidden individuals who are at-risk of self-harm.

A better option, I believe, is to build on work that has already been done to reduce the risk of suicide contagion by the WHO and CDC, and voluntary organisations. This involves a rolling out a systematic education program on how to discuss and portray suicide-related behaviour safely in the media. First designed for media professionals, guidelines have now been drawn up to help young people discuss suicide safely online.

It is called the #chatsafe project

The #chatsafe project is a digital literacy program being pioneered in Australia, in collaboration with Facebook. The goal of this digital literacy initiative is to educate young people on the risks involved with posting or seeing suicide-related content online. If the #chatsafe project became part of a systematic, universal and balanced digital literacy classes in schools, then the risk of Instagram deaths could be reduced.

The problem, however, is that there is little funding for digital literacy`in many schools around the world. Digital literacy is rarely a core component of national curricula, and there has been little investment in developing evidence-based standards or goals for teaching digital wellbeing. In a world where digital technology and media is so central to our lives, this is quite frankly perverse.

Children are taught to cross t’s and dot i’s but not to stay alive.

So here’s the solution. Facebook commits to being taxed on advertising revenue generated in each country, with tax receipts invested by governments in universal, independent, and evidence-based digital literacy classes in all schools, including education on how to discuss self-harm and suicide safely online.

Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.