Young People, Suicide Prevention and Social Media

Tragically, suicide is the second leading cause of death among those under 25 across the world 1 and the leading cause of death among Australian youth.2 Suicide-related thoughts and behaviors are also common with around 30% of young people reporting suicidal thinking and between 12 and 17% reporting a previous suicide attempt.3-5 Yet, young people are reluctant to seek professional help for these sorts of difficulties,6 possibly because when they do, they are often met with a negative response and generally receive sub-optimal treatment.7

It is no surprise then that young people are looking elsewhere for support, and one potential source of that support appears to be social media platforms. Again, this is not a surprise when 90% of young Australians have a smartphone and over 90% of young internet users access social media platforms on a regular basis. 8

So why are young people turning to social media for support? Recent research has identified a number of distinct benefits of providing suicide prevention activities via these platforms.9,10 First, social media appears to be highly acceptable, with young people particularly valuing the ability to provide and receive peer-to-peer support in an interactive, anonymous and non-stigmatizing environment. These benefits extend to those young people who have been bereaved by suicide who also use social media seek support and share their experiences in a non-stigmatizing manner.11

Second, it is highly accessible in that it is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from anywhere in the world, unlike face-to-face services. This is not just beneficial to users but also holds benefits for researchers and clinicians who have found that social media has the capacity to reach tens of thousands of young people both quickly and at relatively little cost.12

Finally, its immediate and public nature allows for real-time communication and rapid intervention. For example, studies have described cases in which suicide notes have been posted online, and while this may be distressing for some, it does provide the opportunity for immediate intervention by friends and family.13