New research shows that teens and young adults are frequently using social networking sites and mobile technology to express suicidal thoughts and intentions as well as to reach out for help.
The findings suggest that suicide prevention and intervention efforts aimed at young adults should use social networking and other types of technology, said researchers.
For the study, researchers conducted an analysis of public profiles on MySpace. They downloaded profile pages of a 41,000-member sample of 13- to 24-year-olds from March 3-4, 2008, and again in December 2008, this time with comments included.
Of 2 million downloaded comments, the researchers narrowed it down to 1,083 that contained suggestions of suicidality, and eventually arrived at 64 posts that were clear discussions of suicide.
“Obviously this is a place where adolescents are expressing their feelings,” said Cash. “It leads me to believe that we need to think about using social media as an intervention and as a way to connect with people.”
Cash’s interest in this subject began in part by media reports about teens using social media to express suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
“We wanted to know: Is that accurate, or are these isolated incidents? We found that in a short period of time, there were dozens of examples of teens with suicidal thoughts using MySpace to talk to their friends,” she said.
“There’s a lot of drama and angst in teenagers so in a lot of cases, they might say something ‘will kill them’ but not really mean it. Teasing out that hyperbole was an intense process,” Cash said. Song lyrics also made up a surprising number of references to suicide, she added.
The three most common suicidal phrases were “kill myself” (51.6 percent), “want to die” (15.6 percent) and “suicide” (14.1 percent).
Researchers also determined that 42 percent of the comments referred to problems with family or other relationships — including 15.6 percent that were about break-ups — and 6.3 percent that pointed to mental health problems or substance abuse.
Very few of the posts identified how the teens would carry out a suicide attempt, but 3 percent mentioned guns, 1.6 percent referred to a knife and 1.6 percent combined being hit by a car and a knife.
Final results of Cash’s survey showed that respondents first chose talking to a friend or family member when they were depressed, followed by sending texts, talking on the phone, using instant messaging and posting to a social networking site.
Less common responses included talking to a health-care provider, posting to a blog, calling a suicide prevention hotline and posting to an online suicide support group.
“It appears that our methods of reaching out to adolescents and young adults is not actually meeting them where they are. If, as adults, we’re saying, ‘this is what we think you need’ and they tell us they’re not going to use it, should we keep pumping resources into suicide hotlines?” Cash said.
“We need to find new ways to connect with them and help them with whatever they’re struggling with, or, in other words, meet them where they are in ways that make sense to them.”
The researchers are going to conduct a study similar to the MySpace analysis by looking at young adults’ Twitter messages for suicidal content. They would like to analyze Facebook, but too few of the profiles are public, said lead author Scottye Cash, Ph.D., associate professor of social work at Ohio State University.
The MySpace research is published in a recent issue of the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking. They presented the survey findings at a meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Source: Ohio State University