A rising number of people are live-streaming their suicides
In December 2016, a 12-year-old girl committed suicide in the front garden of her home in Georgia, USA, as an audience watched online. During the 40 minute broadcast via an app called Live.me, Katelyn Nicole Davis first spoke to the camera about her life, accusing a family member of sexually abusing her, before hanging herself from a tree. No one did anything to help her. Hauntingly, as the video ends, a woman can be heard calling her name in the background.
Horrifying as it is, the circumstances around Katelyn’s death are just one example of a disturbing trend in people live streaming their own self-harm and suicide using social media. According to leaked figures distributed to Facebook’s moderation team, there were over 4,000 incidents of live stream self-harm during just one two-week period in 2016. Of these, 63 had to be dealt with by “relevant authorities” such as the police.
At the time of writing, there are no concrete figures available as to the number of people that take their own lives while live streaming. Nonetheless, the increase in cases between the first known “live suicide”, when, in 2008, 19-year-old Abraham Briggs overdosed on prescription pills as an audience egged him on, to today is clear. While Briggs’ death made headlines, there has been a whole slew of similar incidents in the last year alone, including a 14-year-old girl in Florida, a man who let his venomous snake bite him and 49-year-old man who shot himself while broadcasting on Facebook Live.
So what is compelling people to harm themselves in such a visible manner? It appears to be teenagers that are particularly susceptible to live streaming their self-harm and suicides, perhaps unsurprising given the fact that they have grown up in a world entrenched in social media and digital communication. Not only does sharing details of their lives online come naturally, but there is also a strong understanding the power of social media to provide a platform; many of those who live stream their suicides do so with a public message to make, whether it be accusing sexual assault or fighting back against cyberbullies.
Daniel Reidenberg, executive director of SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), an organisation dedicated to the prevention of suicide, explained that this disproportionate trend also has to do with the way in which younger generations communicate with one another: “Before smartphones existed and people were really struggling with [suicidal] thoughts, if they expressed it at all, they expressed it in notes to their peers or they expressed it in their entire conversations, but today those are not the way that kids communicate," he told InsideEdition.
However, for those hoping to be saved, the prospects are not always good. Although internet users have managed to alert authorities in time to save suicidal individuals in the past, it can be hard to give specifics to emergency services about a person you do not know in a location you are not sure of. When people called for help as Nakia Venant took her life while live streaming in January 2017, confusion over her location meant that emergency services were not able to get to her aid in time. Unfortunately, there is also the risk of a virtual “bystander effect”, where the more people are watching, the less likely they are to act, believing that someone else will step in even if they do not.
Experts are also worried about the prospect of the trend causing “suicide cogitation”, where exposure to the suicidal behaviours of another can increase the risk of self-harm: “Somebody who’s already thinking about suicide but hasn’t begun acting out their thoughts — this could even end up being the trigger for them,” said Dr. Richard McKeon, head of the suicide prevention unit of the US's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Studies have shown that this is especially an issue for adolescents and young adults.
So who is watching these live streams? Well, it would appear that a whole lot of people are. While to you or I the idea of sitting down and watching the death of a 12-year-old would seem sick and incomprehensible, the video of Katelyn Davis' final moments quickly went viral. After being posted to her Facebook account it was swiftly deleted by her family but police were unable to stop it being spread and copied, with other users also uploading it to sites such as YouTube, where it was viewed 40,000 times. While YouTube and Facebook did make efforts to remove the copies of the video posted on their sites, it took the latter two weeks to finally do so.
To their credit, Facebook has been making increasing efforts to tackle the problem, adding roles to the community operations team responsible for monitoring the activity that occurs the site, and working with suicide prevention organisations to develop safeguarding policies. They are currently working on improving AI devices to scan and monitor their site and look for red flags around suicidal behaviour. However, in October 2017, a spokesman told the New York Post that they were powerless to stop all live streamed suicides, owing to the sheer volume of content produced by its two billion users, which really, sounds a bit like the cop-out that just keeps giving.
But self-harm isn't the only issue presented by live streaming services, which have been tainted by incidents of sexual and physical violence, cyber-bullying and even accidental deaths. In December 2017, British police expressed concern that paedophiles were increasingly taking advantage of the technology to prey on vulnerable or impressionable youngsters; in the US a 19-year-old woman was this year jailed for nine months for live streaming the rape of a friend. Needless to say, these are just two examples of many.
With sites such as Live.Me, Facebook Live and Periscope making it easier than ever for people to broadcast in real time, we are not only treated to the high moments of human life - the weddings, the Christmases, the first steps - but confronted with the darker sides too. Neither the internet nor suicide can be easily challenged, but the quicker action is taken, the more effectively vulnerable people can be helped. As for Facebook, the phrase "With great power comes great responsibility" springs to mind - while they may not have invented live streaming, they are, arguably, the most powerful media influencer in the world right now. So whether they like it or not, it is their responsibility to keep tabs on the beast that they have unleashed.
If you or anyone else you know is grappling with suicidal thoughts then please seek urgent professional medical care, or call the Samaritans on 116 123 for help and free 24-hour counselling.