Internet can be dangerous for depressed teens

I never liked the bit in the book of Peter Pan where, in among the business with the mermaids and the pirates, the Lost Boy crows his conviction that "Death will be an awfully big adventure". I didn't like it as a child, and liked it less as a parent.

We now know that Peter's creator, J M Barrie, was a tortured individual with complicated notions about mortality, but it seemed a creepy thing to read to wide-eyed infants in their jammies. Frankly, I preferred the Disney version.

It would be weird, and unhelpful, to attempt the wholesale Disneyfication of young people's reading matter. Musings on mortality, from Hamlet's soliloquy to Albert Camus' philosophical poser ("Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?"), are intellectual rites of passage. But what do you do when adolescent existentialism tips over into the wholesale cult of death?

The mushrooming, in the unregulated waste of the internet, of pro-suicide sites, many of them aimed at teenagers, is a long way from Neverland. Martyn Piper, head of internet safety campaigns at Papyrus, a charity for the prevention of young suicides, called for tighter Government control over websites which he considers "the greatest risk to young people online today". Piper's son, Tim, killed himself at the age of 16 after consulting and following instructions on such a site.

Some 700 under-25s take their own lives each year in the UK. We cannot guess what goes through their minds – this must be their parents' daily torment – but we can assume that a "how to" manual is not what they need at their lowest ebb. Pro-suicide sites range from the baldly functional to pseudo-literary blogs wallowing in death's dark glamour.

Some of them are jokey. Some of them, incredibly, carry advertising. They have become a genre, hotly defended on grounds of " freedom of expression".

It's not a genre that would be likely to find a publisher in the offline universe, but it's a curious and convenient feature of cyberspace that freedom of expression goes, without irony, hand in hand with anonymity.

In 2008, Maria Eagle, then a justice minister, announced a crackdown on suicide websites, updating the language of the 1961 Suicide Act to reflect the challenge of the digital universe, but reform has been slow in coming.

In 2010, the offence of "aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring" suicide was changed to "encouraging or assisting" suicide. While this modification bolstered the legal case against euthanasia or "assisted suicide", it did little to shield the vulnerable from suicide "advice" on the internet.

There is something fundamentally unbalanced about a legislature that expends so much energy on "protecting" terminally ill people, of sound mind, who want to die with the assistance of people who love them, while mentally unbalanced youngsters are falling prey in their hundreds to anonymous promptings from their laptop.  

It is unbearable to think of children losing their confidence that things will be better in the morning, worse than unbearable to think that they were pushed into ending their lives by a total stranger.

So, we don't think it. We want to believe Marilyn Monroe's assurance that: "When you're young and healthy, you can plan on Monday to commit suicide, and by Wednesday you're laughing again."

It didn't work for Marilyn. And it's not a risk we can take.

- The Independent


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