HK suicide-prevention specialists monitor influence of web

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 December, 2011, 12:00am


Social media can spread trends far and fast but also popularise messages that encourage unhealthy emotions and dangerous behaviour among Net users. People have in the past used the internet to vent their grief or desperation before taking their own lives.

Hong Kong specialists in preventing suicide, like their colleagues around the world, have been monitoring closely the influence of the web on people at risk.

One Hong Kong woman who killed herself in June was later found by police to have been active on a networking site where she left messages expressing suicidal intentions. After a city-wide crackdown on a syndicate that used Facebook as a platform to advocate suicide in 2009, similar groups have been discovered that operate in a more subtle manner, social workers say.

'They may disguise themselves as positive-interest groups to lure innocents to participate,' said a social worker who has been monitoring sites that attract teen discussions. The person did not want to be identified.

'Such groups may be named 'happy groups' or 'just for fun' so as to evade the watch of the police. Due to privacy concerns, it is often hard for suicide-prevention groups to get authorisation to view the content posted within the groups and reach out to the organisers and the participants.'

The Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong set up a campaign earlier this year with Facebook to track down messages that could encourage suicide. Seventy cases have been identified.

Many of those who may indeed be suicidal often neglect messages from the specialists, according to Ho Wing-hung, assistant-in-charge at the group's suicide crisis intervention centre.

More should be done to make social media a platform to prevent suicide instead of a means of glorifying it, according to World Health Organisation researcher Dr Wang Xiangdong.

'I don't think people should be free to talk about whatever they want. The bottom line is that whatever is done should not be harmful to the community and should be in the interest of the majority,' he said.

Clarence Tsang Chin-kwok, an executive director of Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong, said the media could also play a role in suicide prevention by refraining from sensationalising reports of suicide.

According to reporting guidelines issued by the Hong Kong Press Council, the media should not publish pictures of the deceased and avoid using graphics to illustrate how the act was carried out.

Information that could reveal the person's psychological situation before a suicide, such as the content of a will, should also be avoided.

Extra care should be taken if the person was well-known, to avoid a copycat effect, the guidelines suggest.