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May/June 2017 Issue

Livestreamed Suicide on Social Media — The Trauma of Viewership
By Lindsey Getz
Social Work Today
Vol. 17 No. 3 P. 14

The recent upsurge of livestreamed suicides has raised concern about the effects on viewers, the unsafe messaging, and the risks of contagion.

In this voyeuristic day and age, interest in YouTube and social media stars seem to be surpassing even those of reality television. And it doesn't stop with celebrities. Everyday social media users relish the opportunity to take a sneak peek inside their "friends'" lives, even if they're only getting a polished glimpse. Now, with the advent of livestreaming capabilities through tools such as Facebook Live, viewers are getting to see real-time action taking place on the other side of a smartphone. Naturally, silly or shocking videos have instantly gone viral such as "Chewbacca mom"—a woman laughing uncontrollably in a Kohl's parking lot while sporting a newly purchased Chewbacca mask.

But there has been a very dark side to livestreaming. In the past year since the Facebook Live platform was launched (in April 2016), there have been several cases of livestreamed suicides. This has raised some serious concerns among those in the mental health professions as well as those who advocate for suicide prevention. After all, one must ask what kind of impact a livestreamed suicide could have on an already high-risk viewer.

The most recent case of a livestreamed suicide in the United States was that of Miami teenager Nakia Venant. The Florida Department of Children & Families confirmed that the 14-year-old died of suicide in the bathroom of her foster parents' home. This was after Venant reportedly broadcast a two-hour long Facebook Live video in which she prepared to end her life. While police were alerted, a series of unfortunate mishaps, including a stop at the wrong address, delayed them from assisting in time.

That livestreamed suicide came after two previous incidents. In December 2016, 12-year-old Katelyn Nicole Davis of Cedartown, GA, died of suicide during a 40-minute Facebook Live video. And just prior to Venant's suicide, 33-year-old Frederick Jay Bowdy, an aspiring actor, killed himself during a Facebook Live video he made from his car.

In the Public Eye
Jonathan B. Singer, PhD, LCSW, an associate professor from Loyola University Chicago's School of Social Work, who specializes in suicide intervention, says that in this day and age, when people are online and broadcasting their lives publicly, there might be less concern about making suicide a public event. He says that while the idea of killing oneself "live" is nothing new, the existence of the internet and social media platforms are changing the game.

"In 1974, a local newscaster shot herself during a live broadcast and died 15 hours later," Singer says. "Like many people who die of suicide, she had been depressed, sought information about methods, and let people know she was suicidal. Unlike most people, she was in the unique position of having a live audience. However, being able to broadcast anything about our lives at any time is still a relatively new concept. People are doing everything in the public's eye and broadcasting suicide has become an unfortunate part of that."

Singer says livestreaming raises a number of concerns. First and foremost, he says that it creates a situation where it becomes very easy to promote unsafe messaging around suicides. It's always been critical that journalists take precautions not to sensationalize suicide deaths in their reporting, as it has the possibility of producing a "contagion effect."

There is a strong body of evidence that suggests suicide can be "contagious." That's because those who are already at a high risk for taking their own life are vulnerable, and news media coverage that sensationalize suicide deaths appears to have an impact on whether they follow through.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has created Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide that includes recommendations such as leaving out specific details of how the individual died and avoiding using triggering photos. However, Singer points out that if people at risk for suicide are watching a livestream, not only are they seeing a sensationalized death but they also are getting detailed information on how, when, and where the suicide is happening. For some, the intensity of watching a suicide live could overwhelm the few remaining coping skills they have left.

Terri Erbacher, PhD, a clinical associate professor for the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, school psychologist, and national expert on school-based responses to suicide, says that because social media is the "lens through which kids view the world these days," watching something on Facebook Live is basically like being there in person. She says that the risk of "contagion" due to social media livestreaming is something that must be addressed.

"I think that completing an act of suicide over a livestream feed is automatically glamorizing it, and the risk of contagion is huge," Erbacher says. "This is something that we need to be talking about. I'm a big proponent of conversation surrounding these issues. It's a myth that talking to young people about suicide is going to make them do it. They already know this is out there—that these livestream suicides are happening—so let's talk to them about it."

The Trauma of Viewership
While those at risk for suicide may be most impacted by livestream events, the truth is they have the power to impact anyone. Whether at risk for suicide or not, Nancy J. Smyth, PhD, LCSW, dean of and a professor in the University at Buffalo School of Social Work in New York, says that watching a livestreamed suicide could traumatize the viewer. She says there is something about images that can be disturbing and tend to sit with our brains. For those who have previously been victims of trauma, viewing an incident such as a livestream suicide could be a potential trauma trigger whether they're at a suicide risk or not.

"It might just be one small scene from the video, but it ends up sticking with them," Smyth says. "And if there is anything in that scene—whether it's the room or the person themselves—that makes the viewer feel connected to it, those effects can be even more powerful. We know from trauma research that the more we connect, the stronger the impact."

Having worked with many trauma survivors, Smyth says the access to horrifying stories, images, and videos on the internet in general is something that survivors often have to face.

"They talk about those things they see online and say it's both disturbing and fascinating," Smyth says. "They are upset by it and yet they are compelled by it—drawn to it even—and they might watch it repeatedly or become obsessed."

When it comes to viewership, Singer adds that there is also a traumatizing aspect to these livestreams to young children who have never had any exposure to suicide. Stumbling upon a video such as this could be incredibly disturbing, he says. When their first exposure to the idea of taking one's life is in this sensationalized live feed format, there is some serious concern over how they will process that information.

"In fact, there is some research that suggest when children have even a passing suicidal ideation, it can be associated with much worse outcomes than when teenagers have passing suicidal thoughts," Singer says. "I think part of it may be because teenagers have already spent some time thinking about life and death and what it all means. They've pondered their purpose in the world. But that's not where a typical 9-year-old would be developmentally. They may have not put much thought into life and death, and to see a video like this and have to come to terms with it can be incredibly traumatizing. They're not ready to process it."

We must also consider the potential impact of the response to these suicides, Singer adds. In some of these recent cases, there are reports of comments mocking or egging the victim on. If someone who is at a high risk for suicide sees that response, they might shut down.

"Suddenly the kid who was thinking about opening up about their suicidal ideas doesn't think they can talk about it," Singer says. "Any possibilities for starting a conversation could be made much more difficult."

Starting the Conversation
With livestream capabilities opening up private worlds to the public eye, it's important that we start some dialogue around it, says Erbacher, who is also the coauthor of Suicide in Schools: A Practitioner's Guide to Multi-level Prevention, Assessment, Intervention and Postvention with Singer and Scott Poland, EdD. She says that when working in schools, it's important that young people know that they are not going to be judged for having suicidal thoughts. That advice applies to anyone at risk for suicide. They must know they have a safe place to open up and talk.

This also holds true for a young person who has viewed a traumatic scene online. It is important that they know they can talk about how this impacted them and feel safe to process it. Schools are often on the frontlines and can be available for psychoeducation on how parents can help their own children as well as postvention counseling to students if needed.

In general, Singer says that these conversations surrounding livestreaming also open the door for conversations about social media in general. Livestreaming capabilities open a whole new realm of issues surrounding privacy that must be broached. Social media users are collectively grappling with what is appropriate to share live—and what is not.

While Facebook Live is only a little over a year old, there have been other, lesser-known platforms already out there including Periscope and Meerkat. However, it's not surprising that it has been Facebook that has brought the concept of livestreaming to the masses. After all, there are more than one billion active Facebook users in the world. Though livestreamed suicides are a hot topic, they certainly aren't the only controversy that has been raised with the use of this broadcasting platform.

One of the first public controversies sparked over Facebook Live was the livestreaming of an actual birth. It immediately ignited a debate over whether that private moment was appropriate to livestream. Not long after, the police shooting of Philando Castile in Flacon Heights, MN, was captured live by Castile's fiancée, who utilized the Facebook Live platform as a sort of documentary tool and helped fuel the public conversation over police violence.

There have been cases of Facebook Live being used to capture many cases of crime or violence—and even horrific footage of a heroin user overdosing—and it's all opening the door to questions about the appropriate usage of social media as well as the impact on viewers for some of these traumatic incidences that are being livestreamed.

"I think it's so important to start the conversation around these issues early," Erbacher says. "Today's young people should be educated on topics surrounding safe use of social media."

Singer says that at the most basic level it also opens the door for a conversation about "consent" as well as what is appropriate to livestream.

"It can be something as simple as mom and dad asking their kids to video chat with a relative," Singer says. "Do they have any choice in whether they are being livestreamed? Or if a parent shares a photo of their child on Facebook—do the kids have a say there? I think we need to start having these conversations about consent when kids are young and also making sure they understand that not everything has to be livestreamed in life."

Smyth says social workers should be more open to having conversations about clients' technology. She feels that for each client, it's important for social workers to have a good sense of how they are utilizing technology. Smyth says that should be a standard part of assessment.

Smyth says an assessment question could be as simple as: Some people use technology as a regular part of their life, while others don't use it at all—where does it fit for you?

She says the key is to keep the range wide so that clients aren't afraid to give their answer. If they are someone who does utilize technology, Smyth says she would also open the conversation to some of the things they might have seen or witnessed through technology.

"Again, the idea is to be very general and to listen to the responses," Smyth says. "I think one of the biggest mistakes social workers make is to automatically make assumptions about someone's technology usage based on their age or their appearance. Don't assume an older client isn't utilizing technology or affected by it in some way. Frame your questions with a wide range of possibilities and then see where your client fits. Once you know where your client stands with technology, then you can have a conversation that is best suited to them."

Taking Action
In addition to conversation, there has also been a call for more immediate action in the case of preventing livestreamed suicides. In March, Facebook announced it would be integrating real-time suicide prevention tools into Facebook Live that includes artificial intelligence that would identify warning signs of self-harm and suicide based on Facebook posts and comments. Facebook has also announced that it will offer live-chat support from crisis support organizations such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Crisis Text Line through Facebook Messenger.

In a letter to Facebook users from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, he pledged to find new ways to prevent suicide. "There have been terribly tragic events—such as suicides, some livestreamed—that perhaps could have been prevented if someone had realized what was happening and reported them sooner," he wrote in his letter.
With some of the new tools put into play, Facebook users who are concerned about a friend who is streaming about suicide can now reach out directly and report the video to Facebook. The individual who is livestreaming will be able to see resources as they are filming including options to reach out to a friend, contact a helpline, or view tips.

"I feel like Facebook has an opportunity to make a difference with this issue and is capitalizing on that chance," Erbacher says. "These efforts will hopefully prevent a suicide in action. But it also gives the viewers some power, which is important. Instead of feeling helpless to watch something tragic unfold, they can do something about it."

— Lindsey Getz is a Royersford, PA-based freelance writer.