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String Of Suicides Leads To Questions About Web's Role

A possible link to sparks a debate over what responsibility memorial pages and online groups can provide as an outlet for dealing with emotions.
Social network site said it will cooperate with authorities investigating the suicides of several young subscribers after parents of the victims and others wondered if the suicides were linked through the site.

Local police in South Wales have seized computers of some of the victims in an attempt to reveal what led up to the suicides but they have not said the social networking sites played a key role, according to a report in The Guardian this week.

Six young men from Bridgend killed themselves in the last year and a seventh victim, 17-year-old Natasha Randall, committed suicide in the same area last week. Several of the victims, including Randall, had pages on Bebo and had contributed to memorial sites for the deceased. The victims, from ages 17 to 27, lived within about 15 miles of each other. Two other teenage girls in the area tried to kill themselves the day after Randall was found dead.

A local coroner wants to figure out whether the suicide victims talked about their intentions online but police said they have not determined a link. They called the seizure of Randall's computer a routine measure after a sudden death.

The situation has sparked debate over the role the Internet plays in suicide. The discussion centers on an area known for fly-fishing, quarries, and its proximity to once-bustling coal mines, but it has made its way to the British parliament and now encompasses global Web sites.

Experts disagree over whether the memorials themselves can create a martyrdom culture and encourage depressed youngsters to seek online praise by copying suicides. Some experts said the memorial pages and online groups can provide an outlet for dealing with sadness and other emotions. Others warned that depressed and grieving teens can sink lower by spending time online with others who are down, instead of seeking professional help.

Mental Help Net, a group that runs a Web site devoted to mental health and wellness, said factors like mood disorders, and history of alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, or suicides of family members are often present in suicide victims. It also points out that several social factors can come into play. They include survivor guilt, significant grief and loss, rejection and humiliation, and learning of other suicides.

"In a copy-cat suicide, a person with identity issues who has become over-identified with an appealing or admired (sometimes famous) individual re-enacts his or her suicide," the site explains. "Sometimes, just finding out about a suicide (e.g., the method used or the circumstances) initiates copycat behavior in a vulnerable individual, because the individual was already feeling suicidal to begin with. Suddenly, the vulnerable individual is provided with a viable suicide method and becomes convinced that he or she can follow through with the act."

The site said that media coverage of suicides by high-profile people can have a stronger impact on young people than others. Young people are more likely to be influenced by media and "to die in cluster suicides" than other age groups, according to Mental Help Net.

Several parents in the South Wales town, with a population of 40,000, said they had no idea their children were distraught. In a town with closed manufacturing plants, one nightclub, and low-wage employment, several victims spent hours on the Internet every day and were online before committing suicide.

One of the victim's parents said that her son used Bebo, but she didn't know how teens communicated their feelings through the site. She urged other parents to monitor their children's online communications.

A mother of another U.K. teen suicide victim said that her daughter had visited sites that encourage suicide and had corresponded with nearly 100 people contemplating the act. A handful of the contacts had been frequent, and one suicide site encouraged users to hide their feelings so others wouldn't recognize red flags and intervene, the mother said. That case has not been linked to the seven in Bridgend, but the mother is digging for clues about a possible connection.

Parents and lawmakers in other countries have also wrestled with the role of Web sites in suicide clusters. In the past few years, the issue has made headlines in Australia, South Korea, and China.

No one has alleged that communications through Bebo directly encourage suicide, but some victims had left messages for others on the site's memorial pages before killing themselves. Bebo told The Guardian that it has a close relationship with the communities where it operates, and the social networking site is committed to providing a safe environment for its users. Counselors have begun to use the site to target at-risk youth and provide support, The Guardian said.

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