Jill Teitelbaum, columnist

Mindlessly scrolling through Facebook used to have one major risk: procrastination. Today, there is a new, far more grim one: witnessing a suicide.

Any suicide is tragic, but a suicide live-streamed on social media, to a potentially infinite audience, can be devastating. In addition to traumatizing witnesses, experts agree that it may also encourage others who are struggling to attempt it too.

Concerningly, the live-streamed suicides have been occurring with increasing frequency. Sadly, this parallels the growing number of suicides nationwide. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, suicide has escalated to the highest levels in almost 30 years.

Since live-streaming first debuted, there have been seven known cases of suicide, according to the executive director of Save.org. Although not all of those were through Facebook, it appears to be the most popular choice.

Three recent cases of suicides on Facebook Live include: a 14-year-old Florida girl hanging herself in her home, a 22-year-old Turkish man shooting himself in his car and lastly, a heartbreaking case which claimed two lives: a young Thai man hanging his 11-month-old daughter, before hanging himself in an abandoned hotel.

According to a USA Today article, “People commit suicide in public ways for any number of reasons. They may be hoping someone will stop them. They may want to share their pain with the world. They may be trying to memorialize their death.”

This haunting trend is just beginning to emerge, and amid vocal concerns and criticisms, Facebook is understandably scrambling to stop it.

According to the USA Today article, “Facebook announced it will integrate real-time suicide prevention tools into Facebook Live.” When people report a live stream of someone who poses an imminent risk to themselves, Facebook will provide resources to both the person reporting and the person streaming, including offering “live-chat support from crisis support organizations such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Crisis Text Line through Facebook Messenger […].” They will also be given the opportunity to reach out to a friend or see tips.

Although intervention is crucial, prevention is imperative.

Fortunately, Facebook has been working on one especially innovative suicide prevention solution: “Testing artificial intelligence to identify warning signs of self-harm and suicide in Facebook posts and comments.”

Technology no doubt offers many promising solutions to this issue, but people should not be overlooked in their potential to help as well.

Luckily, people are an abundant resource for Facebook. According to Statista, Facebook has 1.86 billion monthly active users. If Facebook were a country, it’d be the largest by population in the world. Although an audience that big means that there are millions of potential witnesses to future deaths, it also means there are millions of people who can intervene to save those lives.

Just as Facebook’s breadth provides a platform for people to commit suicide, it also creates an unparalleled opportunity to get people help.

A major criticism of Facebook’s response to the live-streamed suicides has been its apparent failure to cut them off. Jennifer Guadagno, Facebook’s lead researcher for suicide prevention explained the reasoning behind this action: “Some people may say we should cut off the stream the moment there’s a hint of somebody talking about suicide, but what we learned from the experts and what they emphasized to us is that cutting off the stream too early removes the chance of someone being able to reach out and provide help.” She continued, “In this way, Live becomes a lifeline. It opens up the opportunity for people to reach out for support and for people to give support at this time that’s critically important.”

Guadagno concluded, “One of the things we have learned from experts is that social support is one of the best ways to prevent suicide.”

Before you hastily criticize Facebook for its role in the growing cases of suicides live-streamed on its site, keep in mind that Facebook’s potential for helping people in need is enormous. It’s even possible that Facebook may end up becoming the largest support network in the world.

If you have had suicidal thoughts or are worried about someone else, you can contact:

Miami University Student Counseling Service – (513) 529-4634

Miami University Psychology Clinic – (513) 529-2423

Butler County Crisis Line – 1-844-427-4747

National Suicide Prevention Hotline – 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Crisis Text Line – Text “hello” to 741-741

TEITELJH@MIAMIOH.EDU

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