In the past two months, at least three transgender teenagers have committed or attempted suicide after scheduling suicide notes on the blog platform Tumblr.
First Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old girl from Ohio, became a worldwide web phenomenon after her suicide note about trans acceptance and parenting went viral.
Less than two months later, 15-year-old Zander Mahaffey wrote his suicide note on Tumblr and scheduled it to post after he died.
And mere days after that, a 13-year-old boy named Damien Strum read Mahaffey’s letter, pronounced his thoughts “identical … to mine,” and posted his note to multiple social networks. According to his sister’s Tumblr, a reader tipped off police and Strum’s parents before the teen actually went through with his plans — but he’s now in intensive, inpatient psychiatric care, and it’s unclear when he’ll get out.
Even less clear, as more cases like these shake out: What, exactly, social networks and advocacy groups should make of the dangerous, well-intentioned phenomenon of “viral” suicide. After all, when readers share notes like Alcorn’s and Mahaffey’s hundreds of thousands of times, as they’ve already done on Tumblr, they’re doing it out of solidarity and support with vulnerable LGBT teens; they are, in the words of one blogger, trying to “keep them alive.”
But public health experts fear that the spread of the notes — and their attendant memes, photo collages, and highly idealized portraits — could actually present a very warped, romanticized narrative on suicide to the exact group of kids who need to hear the opposite. In fact, in the days after Alcorn’s suicide note went viral, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention wrote to Tumblr imploring it to take the note offline.
“[The post] has the potential to prompt copycat suicidal behavior,” AFSP warned in a sternly worded e-mail. “By removing this post, you could save lives.”
The phenomenon that AFSP is referring to, called “suicide contagion,” is, of course, nothing new. Psychology researchers have been documenting it since at least the 1960s, when Marilyn Monroe’s death was followed by months of extensive news coverage — and a startling 12-percent jump in suicides. Repeat research has shown, essentially, that when a suicide receives a large amount of media coverage, particularly if that coverage somehow glamorizes or romanticizes the death, more suicides are likely to follow.
To be clear, explains Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, the vice president of research for AFSP, that doesn’t mean that news of a suicide somehow magically convinces otherwise healthy people to contemplate their own deaths. But when that messaging reaches certain vulnerable, predisposed populations — say, transgender teens who feel depressed and isolated and helpless, to begin with — it can push them over the edge.
“We don’t know as much about suicide contagion on social media as we do about contagion through newspapers or film,” Harkavy-Friedman says. “But we do know that it’s more concentrated, and the information is disseminated more rapidly” — which could be quite a dangerous thing.
Take the evidence from a study published last May in the British medical journal the Lancet, which reviewed 53 teenage suicide clusters over an eight-year period — one of the more comprehensive reviews of the contagion phenomenon. The study found a clear relationship between media coverage and contagion, as have other studies before it. But it also managed to pinpoint the exact aspects of media coverage that made contagion worse: front-page stories, big headlines, pictures of the deceased, details on or allusions to the method of death.
In the social media age, of course, each of those factors is magnified tenfold: On Tumblr, you can not only view hundreds of glamorized, heroized pictures of the deceased, but read — in his own words — exactly how he planned to commit suicide, why he chose that method, and why he felt he had no other choice. (Experts stress that there’s always another choice, and the implication that there isn’t can be very damaging.)
Particularly within Tumblr’s LGBT community, where the deaths of Alcorn and Mahaffey have been particularly painful, it’s not unusual to see the teen characterized as martyrs for a cause, or victims who were pushed to suicide by factors far outside their own control. On Tumblr, Alcorn is called “princess” and Mahaffey is “star boy.” Fellow bloggers draw them in beautiful, idealized portraits, surrounded by flowers or stars or angel wings. They’ve become slogans and symbols, their names markered onto forearms and school lockers and notebook margins.
Even Tumblr’s epitaph of choice — R.I.P., for “rest in power” — seems to suggest that their deaths by suicide were somehow empowering or ennobling, the exact opposite of what public health experts say other vulnerable teens need to hear.
“If you want to be helpful or support this community,” Harvaky-Friedman said, “reach out and say suicide is not the answer. Say, ‘you’re not alone.’ Keep educating people on ways to get help.”
Unfortunately, it’s not always quite so easy. Tumblr has fought a long, losing battle against its teen cohorts over the issue of dangerous content: Even after the site banned blogs promoting self-harm and eating disorders in 2012, they flourished in the shadows and on little-seen hashtags — numbering almost 200,000 a full year later. The site has partnered with organizations like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the National Eating Disorders Association to serve up PSAs and help-line numbers to the many users searching terms like “thinspo” and “suicide.”
Predictably, when Tumblr began to take down copies of Alcorn’s suicide note — at the behest of AFSP, among others — users revolted. (The site has not yet moved to take down copies of Mahaffey or Strum’s suicide notes, which, as of this writing, have been shared a combined 100,000 times.)
“How dare staff take this down?” one blogger wrote next to a screengrab of Alcorn’s suicide note. “We will NOT let you delete her!”
That’s a natural and understandable impulse, advocates admit. And it’s important to address the very real difficulties that many transgender teens face, and that Alcorn and Mahaffey both discuss in their notes: feelings of confusion and helplessness, lack of acceptance from parents, no adequate support system or social network.
But in the aftermath of Alcorn’s death, advocacy groups like Transgender Law Center encouraged concerned people to support their transgender friends and relatives and to refer them to helplines like the Trevor Project, if they need it; they urged media not to create “an aura of celebrity” around the victims or to “normalize suicide” by making it sound like a natural consequence of gender-related bullying and rejection. They never encouraged people to share Alcorn’s story, however. And they certainly never encouraged readers to share her suicide note.
A better way to memorialize her, they suggest, would be to stop sharing the words of transgender teens who committed suicide — and start looking out for other transgender teens before it’s too late. (“Don’t wait until we become a hashtag,” one very viral Tumblr post reads.)
“We know that the Internet can also be a fast way to get help,” Harkavy-Friedman said. But readers, have to “reach out, keep trying, help them to get help.”
On Feb. 19, the 13-year-old Strum posted a disturbing series of messages to Instagram: “Would any of you notice I’m gone?” he wrote. And “if I died … would there be a ‘his name was Damien’ tag?”
“Stay strong darling,” one follower wrote.
“Your [sic] beautiful. DM me if you need me.”
“Damien, we love you!!” — lots of those, many times over.
On Tumblr, Strum’s hashtag has become #HisNameIsDamien: is, not was. This time, at least, someone from social media acted in time. And hopefully, that story will go as viral as the times when no one acted at all.
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