Death by Chat Room?

Study concludes that pro-suicide Web sites may push people over the edge.

ByABC News
April 10, 2008, 8:06 PM

April 10, 2008 — -- An unhappy young woman kills herself. Hard-boiled detectives determine that she was aided by a virtual stranger who runs a Web site that not only provides practical information on committing suicide, but encourages people who post on her message boards to put a very final end to their pain.

In prototypical crime drama fashion, plot twists abound and the story turns out to be more than a case of free speech taken to the extreme.

Sound like an episode of "Law and Order."

That's because it is, but a just released study from the British Medical Journal suggests that the Internet may play a significant role in the outcomes of suicide attempts -- or even whether such attempts are made at all.

The study's lead author, Lucy Biddle, a research associate in medical sociology at the University of Bristol, reports that there has long been a direct correlation between suicide methods displayed in traditional media outlets such as television and film, and the methods people use to kill themselves.

Because some methods are more likely to result in death than others, the study reports, the images that vulnerable people see on TV may indirectly affect whether they live or die.

By extension Internet news and interactive chat rooms are at least as influential as television, given the largely unfettered access.

By imagining that they were people looking to kill themselves, Biddle's team searched Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask using unambiguous search phrases like "pain-free suicide" and "how to kill yourself."

Because people tend to click on the first hits that come up, they analyzed the first 10 sites that appeared in each engine from each search. Discounting repeats, they had 240 sites to work with.

Out of those 240, about 40 sites "encouraged, promoted, facilitated" or described methods of suicide. Some described suicide in what researchers called "fashionable terms."

An additional 40 or so sites described personal experiences and other accounts of suicides, but without direct encouragement.