After Hong Kong’s spate of student suicides, we should all act as digital Samaritans for those in need
Paul Yip says social media users can help save lives by engaging with vulnerable friends at a time when cyberbullying, rumour-spreading and other forms of online abuse are widespread
Facebook, the world’s largest online social network with 1.65 billion active users, is appealing to its users to look out for their friends and take the initiative to offer help if necessary. In our study of recent student suicides in Hong Kong, over half had indicated suicidal thoughts on social media before they killed themselves, either expressing their feelings and/or seeking help from others.
Social media provides an opportunity to engage these vulnerable young people and save lives. It should also be noted that the spate of suicides could be a result of the copycat effect of extensive sensational media reporting and sharing this negative news on social media, which can affect these vulnerable people.
Hong Kong has more than 4.9 million active Facebook users each month. Young people have made good use of the platform to share photos and connect with each other. At the same time, some distressed people have used it to share their frustrations, as sometimes they find it difficult to do so face to face. Online, they feel safe and can take charge of the situation.
In one of our latest surveys, some 24 per cent of young people said that when they felt distressed, they did not seek help from traditional means, but would readily open up and share things on social media. It is encouraging to see that Facebook and Google have shown corporate social responsibility by promoting online safety and support for those in need, especially the young.
A number of non-governmental organisations, supported by the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, offer cyber youth-engagement services. They have been trying to engage vulnerable young people who may be unreachable by traditional means, for example, through youth centres or hotlines. It is also very labour-intensive to do manual searches through blogs to look for warning signs among disconnected youth in the online community.
Hence, it would be beneficial if the community, and users of social media in general, could work as gatekeepers to friends who might need support. This is, after all, the best way to look out for those needing help. Raising awareness among internet users is important and effective; it will widen the safety net and can provide better and more timely engagement. Furthermore, with technological developments, we should consider using algorithms to pinpoint key words and phrases in the social media posts of people who may be suicidal or depressed.
However, misuse of social media has become a serious concern worldwide. Some have used it to learn about different suicide methods. Cyberbullying, rumour-spreading and abuse are widespread and they have been shown to be related to some suicide cases, especially among young people.
About 14.5 per cent of people aged between 12 and 29 have experienced cyberbullying. Social media technology has expanded quickly, yet community standards have yet to be established. The speed and breadth of coverage can be scary and once it is out there, it is difficult to stop its spread. It is very easy to post a comment without giving much thought about the possible impact on receivers of the message.
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Certainly, empathy and compassion are in short supply on social media. News reports are forwarded without checking their accuracy. That can cause a lot of damage, sometimes unintentionally. In the internet era, everything happens so fast, and things can escalate exponentially.
Facebook has advocated “think before you post” and we agree wholeheartedly with this. Unfortunately, today, we all look for instant responses with little thought, making any in-depth discussion almost impossible. Yet, the potential negative impact is large. In response to one of the latest suicide cases, we appealed to the public not to keep posting the news; it was not news any more. It would have been better to send caring messages. Some internet users did change their behaviour during the peak of student suicides by sharing information on seeking help rather than reports of the incidents.
Respect and responsibility should be promoted as good practice on social media. We should respect people’s rights and realise we have a responsibility to each other. If we continue to litter cyberspace, it will soon become an unhygienic, uninhabitable environment that’s not good for our safety or well-being. We all need to exercise restraint in posting any news (especially from unverifiable sources).
Hong Kong ranked first in the latest GFK Connected Consumer Index among 78 countries and eight regions. We have some of the highest broadband speeds and penetration rates in the world. On average, people own 2.3 mobile phones and our young people spend about two hours on the internet every day.
We should take advantage of being better connected to act as Samaritans for those in need. Social media can serve us well by helping us connect with each other but it can also be a bad master which dominates our lives. Let’s embrace our digital world with humility and wisdom, and demonstrate our respect and responsibility to each other by helping those in need using the latest social media developments.
Paul Yip is director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong