There have been at least three live-streamed suicides in the past month, two by teenage girls. And while suicide isn’t a new concern, the ability to live-stream the act – and therefore encourage copycat behavior – is an issue that experts fear could grow, especially among young adults.
One of the earliest cases of a live-streamed suicide was Abraham Biggs in 2008. The 19-year-old Florida teen had posted multiple times on an online body-building message board that he was planning to kill himself. Eventually, he linked to a live-stream site called Justin.tv, where the video showed him overdosing on prescription pills.
Bloggers egged him on and told him to “go ahead and do it,” according to ABC News. Those bloggers said they didn’t believe it was real so they didn’t do anything to help.
Dr. Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania who has studied suicide for 13 years, said that’s a common problem, especially in the age of reality television.
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“Many people don’t think it’s real, maybe it’s a prank. It’s hard to believe,” Ramsland said. “And there are also just nasty people out there who have been emboldened by the internet, trolls, or whatever you want to call them.”
The psychology behind a public suicide, such as live-streaming, isn’t straightforward, Ramsland said. Just like there are myriad reasons for suicide, reasons for live-streaming suicide also vary.
“Some people want to punish with their suicide. Some want to feel that connection to social media – to take away the solitary feeling of the act but still be in an environment they feel at home in,” Ramsland said. “Some want to get their name in the media, not for fame, because they don’t think they’ll be around for that, but because they want attention and they want people to notice.”
People who are considering suicide may make a statement they want others to hear, Ramsland added, and live-streaming gives them the opportunity to magnify that statement. Katelyn Nicole Davis, a 12-year-old in Georgia who killed herself on Dec. 30 on a live-streamed video on Live.me, said during her livestream that she had been sexually abused and had previous videos about dealing with depression.
In some cases, such as Biggs’, Ramsland said those live-streaming might hope that someone will help them. Long videos or suicide methods that take longer, such as overdoses or cutting, can be signs of that.
The potential harm of live-streaming suicide is very real, said Phyllis Alongi, clinical director at the Society for Prevention of Teen Suicide in New Jersey. It increases the chances of what experts call suicide contagion, which is also common after celebrities kill themselves.
“Imagine an adolescent feeling emotionally lost, almost invisible and witnessing the notoriety or memorialization of a teen who completed suicide, gaining attention in their immediate community as well as the vast amount of attention obtained from social media. This is the essence of contagion,” Alongi said. “Live streamed suicide has significant negative impact on the family, the teens viewing the live stream, the community and anyone who is having suicidal thoughts.”
Adolescents especially seem susceptible to wanting to live-stream their suicides, Ramsland said. She said the highest risk population will likely be those in high school, who are more connected to social media. Older generations tend to see social media and live-streaming as more of a violation of their privacy than young people, she added.
Suicide is most common among people ages 45 to 64, at 19.6 per 100,000 people in 2015, according to the American Association of Suicidology. That’s followed by people 65 and older, at 16.6 per 100,000 people, and then those ages 15 to 24, at 12.5 per 100,000 people.
The cases of live-streamed suicide also illuminate struggles on how to deal with it on social media. The live-stream of Katelyn Nicole Davis lasted 40 minutes, and though her family took down the video shortly after, others copied it and posted it on social sites such as Facebook. Facebook at first told users who reported the video that it didn’t violate their policies, but two weeks after public outrage and a police request, they took down the video.
Naika Venant, a 14-year-old in foster care in Miami, broadcasted her suicide on Facebook Live overnight Sunday. Thousands watched as she prepared to hang herself in a video that lasted about two hours, and due to a series of tragic mistakes, emergency responders did not arrive in time to save her.
Ramsland said it’s difficult to know what to do if you see a live-streamed suicide but don’t know the person. Many people don’t call for help due to the bystander effect, or believing that someone else will intervene so you don’t have to.
If you do call 911, your local dispatcher likely won’t know any more than you do about the person’s location, Ramsland said. And due to the internet’s reach, they could easily be in a different state or even a different country. The best bet is to try to figure out the general location and then call first responders, as well as report it to Facebook and hope someone sees it in time who can help police identify a location.
“If someone does violate our Community Standards while using Live, we want to interrupt these streams as quickly as possible when they’re reported to us. So we’ve given people a way to report violations during a live broadcast,” Christine Chen, a spokeswoman for Facebook, said in a statement to the Miami Herald. “We also suggest people contact law enforcement or emergency services themselves if they become aware of something where the authorities can help.”
Frederick Jay Bowdy, a 33-year-old aspiring actor from Texas, killed himself on Facebook Live in North Hollywood on Monday. An out-of-state family member called police, but he killed himself before police reached him.
Alongi said the only way to truly decrease the live-streaming of suicides is to cut down on the amount of suicides generally.
“We need to promote suicide prevention through awareness and education. We need to make it okay to ask for help for ourselves and others. We need to address the stigma of mental health and suicide,” Alongi said. “We need to come together and ‘attack’ from all angles; parents, students, schools, organizations, agencies, and legislation.”
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800- 273-TALK.