Do online death dialogues prompt teens to suicide?
A USF faculty team wants to study whether sites with memorials and farewells encourage kids to take their lives.
By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS
Published August 28, 2006
TAMPA - Before Jonathan Link, 20, shackled his feet and drowned in Hillsborough Bay last April, he changed his MySpace.com screen name to "Goodbye."
The same month, Army Pvt. Dylan Meyer also died in apparent suicide. Meyer, from Tampa, left words of comfort for friends on his MySpace page.
"I just want to remind you not to be sad," wrote Meyer, 20.
The world's first generation to double-click its way through elementary school is using the Web to stay connected - even in death, where the popularity of MySpace has given rise to MyDeathSpace.com. The site archives profiles of deceased MySpace members.
Psychologists wonder if such electronic farewells and self-memorials provide negative role models for teens in despair, encouraging suicide. University of South Florida researchers hope to answer that question.
Web sites frequented by teens are, in some cases, rife with talk of death. They acknowledge suicides that might be discreetly omitted from mainstream publications, which typically take a cue from mental health workers who warn of a contagion effect.
"Sometimes people get concerned when a young person is highlighted in the newspaper," said Dr. Ilene R. Berson, associate professor of the Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida.
"People say other kids are going to hear about this and they're going to relate with that young person, particularly if everyone is saying all these wonderful things," Berson said.
Berson and a USF faculty team are seeking funding to study whether social networking web sites create a suicide contagion effect.
Researchers would design a computer algorithm to see if MySpace members who kill themselves have been linked online to other suicidal members. They will also tap into MyDeathSpace, which as of Friday, registered 55 suicides and 457 other deaths.
Anger, curiosity and bravado reign on MyDeathSpace forums, where strangers pick apart the writings of MySpace members who die.
They make fun of a 16-year-old California girl who died re-enacting a stunt from MTV's Jackass show and express sorrow over a pregnant 21-year-old Massachusetts woman who died in an alcohol-related crash.
Some members even flirt with the idea of their own mortality.
"Look at it. they don't have to deal with everything anymore. no taxes, no traffic jams, no working a dead end job, busting your a-- just to hae sic enough to pay the bills, none of that, its all over now," member 997 writes. "life is boring, i'm just waiting for it to end."
MyDeathSpace gets hate mail daily. Founder Mike Patterson responds to them on the forums.
"MyDeathSpace has helped countless teens," he writes. "While you can mouth off about how pathetic I am and how miserable my life is, other people send e-mails thanking me for what I have done."
Patterson writes that in late April, a young girl from Florida contacted MyDeathSpace and threatened suicide. She gave him passwords to all her online accounts and told him to save a spot for her on MyDeathSpace.
"I called the sheriff's department in her home town and they went over to her house and picked her up and took her to the hospital. Maybe she just wanted attention, maybe she was serious, I don't know," Patterson writes. "What I do know is that one of the officers called me a few days later and thanked me for getting in contact with them."
Patterson could not be reached for an interview.
Researcher Berson doesn't want to jump to conclusions about the Web sites yet.
"We're going to look at both sides of the continuum," Berson said.
On one end, because the frontal lobe of the brain doesn't develop until early adulthood, teens are naturally built to be impulsive, Berson said.
"In an online environment, they're bombarded with images and digital stimuli that strengthens the response of that part of the brain," Berson said. "It feeds that sort of behavior to engage in that activity."
But she realizes that digital spaces also provide outlets for grief.
"We may find that in general it provides a supportive part of the grieving process," she said.
Berson says plans for the study are evolving. But she's certain of this: MySpace is giving psychologists more insight than ever into the teenage mind and social structures.
"We are getting access to things we never had before, or at least didn't have easily," Berson said. "We can sort of watch from behind the scenes."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.
[Last modified August 28, 2006, 01:58:34]
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