Last month an inquest was held into the death of 13-year old Ellie Phillips. Ellie who was from Devon, had tragically taken her own life in October 2017, by hanging herself in her back garden. In truly distressing circumstances, she was found by her mother. The Coroner, sitting at Exeter County Hall, heard that Ellie was a talented hockey player and captain of the school team, but also struggled with self-image and friendship issues. She was unhappy at her school, had few friends and was worried that she didn’t ‘fit in’. Ellie, who was described as addicted to her iPhone had written about her own funeral on her phone. Police investigating the circumstances of her tragic death, also found that she had researched suicide methods online.
Not unexpectedly the use of the internet to aid suicide is becoming more and more common. Earlier in the year, Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) Gillian Martin called for internet search providers and social media platforms to take a tougher stance on websites that encourage and assist people to take their own lives. Mrs Martin also raised the issue in the Scottish Parliament, highlighting the death of 36-year old Jo Cruickshank who took her own life in August 2015. Like Ellie, Jo had used online search engines to research the best way to end her life. Following her death, Jo’s mother Deanna has campaigned for pop-up ads to be introduced on search engines, which would provide a signpost to support when someone enters the term suicide into the search engine.
There is no doubt that for someone who is vulnerable, perhaps suffering from depression or having suicidal thoughts, then websites or forums that encourage or romanticise suicide can have potentially fatal consequences. But how easy is it to find these websites and what exactly are the main internet search engines doing to limit their existence?
How easy is it to access pro-suicide websites?
There have been a number of studies looking at the ease with which a person can access pro-suicide websites. Without a doubt in the past it could be achieved with relative ease through one of the big internet search engines, using very simple search terms. Most of the studies appear to date back 10-years or so. What is the current state of play and are they still easily accessible?
The most current research available on the web originates from the Taiwan based online ‘Journal of Medical Sciences’ who last year produced a report entitled ‘Searching for Suicide Information on Web Search Engines in Chinese’. Whilst clearly this report relates specifically to the Chinese internet market, the results are relevant to the West, given that three of the five search engines they tested can be considered ‘The Big 3’ – Google, Yahoo and Bing. The researcher’s used key search terms – “suicide”, “how to suicide”, “suicide methods” and “want to die”. They carried out these tests in April 2016 and placed their results into certain categories. Of the 352 unique websites they identified, the researchers found that suicide prevention websites were the most frequent search returns (37.8%). A further 25.9% sites were unrelated to suicide whilst 23.5% they classified as ‘neutral websites’.
Whilst the good news is that almost 88% of websites appeared to present no form of danger to vulnerable people, the researches still identified nearly 10% of the search returns were sites that they classified as ‘pro suicide websites’. Most of those sites were connected to community websites, which usually means that the site links to an online community dealing with specific content and usually requiring membership. Typically, this could be a social networking site, newsgroup, forum, chat room or a blog. Therefore, as deplorable as these websites are, the dangers are much wider, with pro-suicide communities thriving in the social media platforms and chatrooms. Social media was a primary factor in the linked murders of nine people, last year in Japan. Between August and October, 27-year old Takahiro Shiraishi lured nine victims to his apartment by posting an advert, asking for people he could either assist, or watch take their own life. He targeted vulnerable people who had expressed suicidal thoughts. Shiraishi confessed to murdering and dismembering all nine victims, the youngest being 15-years old.
So, it’s not just about websites, but the wider platforms available within the web. However, for many desperate people the major search engines are the first place to look. We conducted our own test on all three search engines by typing in “best way to kill myself”, starting with Google.
Google – The first thing to note is that when you type something into Google, the predictive text springs into play, offering a number of alternatives to help complete the term you are searching for. This is to help streamline your search, commonly known as the autocomplete facility. When we typed in “best way” the autocomplete offered us a number of alternatives, the top one being “best way to lose weight”. A few more words “best way to kill” gave us a return on how to kill a host of pests – wasps, rats, ants, weeds etc. However, at the point we typed in “best way to kill mys” the autocomplete stops and we had to manually complete the word ‘myself’. The reason for this is that Google’s autocomplete policy is that keywords that imply harmful or dangerous behaviours are removed from this function. Although this is only a minor inconvenience to the person searching (they can still type the whole thing manually), it does indicate that Google have at least thought about preventing harmful things happening.
From our search we returned a diverse group of sites featured on the first page (10 hits). The first thing we were greeted with was the Samaritans 24-hour helpline, boxed off and heading the page. This is a feature from Google, whereby when the word suicide features in any search, the site automatically shows the helpline, signposting a person contemplating suicide to a place where they can get help and advice.
The first result of our search was a link to the NHS help page providing information on prevention organisations. The second was a link to a discussion group, where the topic being debated was “What is the quickest and easiest way to kill yourself?”. Whilst most contributors openly talked about the best, easiest and quickest methods, there were some posts that argued against suicide. At least there was a header at the top of the page signposting to the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, as was there in our third hit, a site that looked at ‘The Top 10 Common Ways to Commit Suicide’. This was another forum site where users could leave comments on the best way to take your own life, the number 1 choice being ‘Overdose’. Again, the comments left by users were less than helpful to someone already contemplating suicide. A further site giving the best methods had been removed whilst another discussion site gave answers like “Easiest? Go to sleep with your car on in a small garage”.
One page was titled ‘Suicide isn’t so bad, give it a chance’, with the tag line “Thinking about suicide but you’re not sure if it’s the right thing to do? Here are some tips to help you decide whether or not killing yourself is a good choice”. The page then lists 10 reasons why you might kill yourself , most of which were clearly a poor attempt at dark humour. However, one of the reasons listed was “if you just got out of a bad relationship and you feel like things are never going to get better; you’re right. Everyone knows that suicide is the only option, stop procrastinating. Look on the bright side, at least your ex will feel guilty for a couple of minutes–but don’t count on it”. For someone contemplating suicide following a relationship break-up, this comment might just be the tipping point.
Three further hits were articles from people who had contemplated suicide themselves, but were now sharing their personal accounts to deter people, the main message being there is help available. Each had links to prevention helplines. Another page was an article from some idiot who in an attempt at humour, had listed various suicide methods, highlighting the pain that someone might endure if the attempt was unsuccessful. The last hit on the first page didn’t relate to suicide at all, only featuring because suicide featured as a keyword in the article.
Search hits obviously change dependent on the rating and popularity of the site, but generally the response on Google is less about proper prevention sites and more about unhelpful people. Some of these individuals appear to think they are doing the right thing, whilst others are intentionally making mischief by entering into sick discussions.
Bing and Yahoo – As expected the returns from Bing and Yahoo were similar, with many of the articles returned on Google also appearing in the first 10 hits of both these search engines. The exception was the first few hits of Yahoo which appeared to be aimed at cockroach extermination. Whilst Bing has the same autocomplete facility as Google, Yahoo has no such failsafe in place.
What was clear from the results of our searches, is that many forums and newsgroups have been set up with suicide prevention in mind. Most have rules about harmful content and not allowing open discussion about ways to kill oneself. However, they are then often hijacked by users who have a pro-suicide agenda, frequently forcing the topic into a ‘for and against’ debate. Also evident was that unless you specifically type key word such as ‘suicide prevention’, then the ratio of unhelpful, insensitive and often dangerous sites far outstrips the prevention sites. It could be argued that many of these sites cannot really be classified as pro-suicide sites, in the sense that they don’t actively encourage a person to take their life. So, are the nastier sites only available on the Dark Web?
At the beginning of this year, 16-year old Leilani Clarke from Bournemouth, took her own life after she received poor results in her mock GCSE exams. It was later found that immediately prior to her death, Leilani had logged into a suicide chatroom in the Dark Web. It is not known how she knew of the chatroom’s existence or how to access the dark web. Leilani’s tragic death is an example of the involvement of the dark web and there is no doubt that this is probably the best source of information for someone seeking to take their own life. However, access is not readily available and requires specific software (downloadable), the most famous of which is TOR (The Onion Router). This allows the user to browse and engage in the dark web anonymously. Whilst not difficult to access, for the majority of people intent on researching how to take their own lives, it is unlikely that the dark web will be the first or main source of information. We cannot say this with any degree of certainty because it is impossible to know how many people have access to the dark web and therefore identify the impact of pro-suicide sites within it.
For most people the ‘normal internet’ (surface net) will be the go to place to source information. Whilst our original search term furnished us with a mish mash of results, it took us a matter of seconds to tinker with key search words and identify both a certain pro-suicide forum and newsgroup. On both we found deeply disturbing information and discussions, which clearly represented a real risk to a vulnerable person. One of the live threads on the forum was a concern that one of the regular contributors hadn’t posted for a few days. There then followed a discussion about how they could try to trace him/her to establish if they were still alive, or whether he/she had ‘CBT’. This is an acronym for ‘catch the bus’, the slang term on suicide discussion groups for someone who has ended their life.
The evidence is clear, those people searching online for ways to take kill themselves, are far more likely to discover sites that encourage them to take their own lives, rather than those that offer help and advice around prevention. It is also a fact that for now these sites will continue to exist and flourish, both on the unencrypted net and within the dark web. Therefore, from a safeguarding prospective we need to maximise our skills and knowledge base, so that we are best equipped to identify those that are vulnerable, ensuring they get the specialist help they need.
Thanks for reading.