Suicide and apathy on the internet

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

Suicide isn’t a topic many of us want to discuss but the death of a United States teen last week has made it a hotly debated topic online and there have been calls for censorship of the internet.

However, short of putting in place the type of controls China has inflicted on its citizens, censoring the internet is pretty much impossible.

Abraham Biggs, a 19-year-old from Florida, took a lethal cocktail of drugs, then went online to talk about it on his blog and broadcast his death via his webcam.

University of Miami School of Medicine director of child and adolescent psychiatry  Jon Shaw says having access to that blog and webcam most likely encouraged the teen to take his own life.

Dr Shaw believes it wouldn’t have happened without the online audience and that the webcam provided the psychological distance that let other bloggers forget basic human decency and instead taunt, and even encourage, the teenager to go ahead with his plans.

Sadly, this isn’t the first suicide to be broadcast on the internet, and I suppose it probably won’t be the last.

In another case, Kevin Whitrick, a 42-year-old Briton, was logged on to a so-called “insult” chat room on the well-known Paltalk chat program, with his webcam broadcasting to the world, when he placed a rope around a ceiling joist and around his neck, then stepped off a chair. Some of the chat participants egged him on while others tried desperately to find his address. Eventually, the police were called but Mr Whitrick did not survive.

In any suicide, family and friends are left with unanswered questions and wondering if there was anything they could have done to stop it. Usually, the answer is no.  However, in these online suicides other internet users have sat back and watched, not offering to help and sometimes even encouraging the victim.

As much as the internet offers us the freedom to explore and learn about a seemingly endless array of topics, it brings with it some dangers that we must acknowledge.

Perhaps instead of pointing the finger at the internet we need to look at the moral shortcomings of those who took part in taunting these victims, or those who stood back and did nothing when they saw what was happening.

The internet does have its dangers, but it’s not as dangerous as a society that doesn’t care.


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