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Feature Public Health

Suicide and the internet

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 10 April 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:800
  1. Lucy Biddle, research fellow1,
  2. Jenny Donovan, professor of social medicine1,
  3. Keith Hawton, professor of psychiatry2,
  4. Navneet Kapur, reader in psychiatry3,
  5. David Gunnell, professor of epidemiology1
  1. 1Department of Social Medicine, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 2PR
  2. 2Centre for Suicide Research, University of Oxford Department of Psychiatry, Warneford Hospital, Oxford OX3 7JX
  3. 3Centre for Suicide Prevention, University of Manchester, Manchester M13 9PL
  1. Correspondence to: D Gunnell

    Recentreports of suicide by young people have highlighted the possible influence of internet sites. Lucy Biddle and colleagues investigate what a web search is likely to find

    Media reporting of suicide and its fictional portrayal on television are known to influence suicidal behaviour, particularly the choice of method used.1 2 3 Indeed, epidemics of suicides using particular methods have occurred after media portrayal of their use.3 4 5 As some methods of suicide are more likely to cause death than others,6 such influences may affect the outcome of suicide attempts and national suicide rates.7

    The influence of the internet on suicidal behaviour is less well understood, although it is an increasingly popular source of information, especially for people confronting embarrassing issues such as mental illness, and concerns have been raised about the existence of sites that promote suicide.8 9 Some people report being encouraged to use suicide as a problem solving strategy by suicide web forums8 and cases of cybersuicide—attempted or completed suicide influenced by the internet—have been published in the popular and academic press.9 10 11 12 Suicide sites are also claimed to have facilitated suicide pacts among strangers who have met and then planned their suicide through the internet.11

    Despite recent controversy, no one knows how easy it is to find sites relating to suicide on the internet and what sort of information they contain. Recent studies of internet search behaviour suggest that most people use search engines, that queries are broad—mostly composed of a few words and rarely including Boolean operators or phrase searches, and that users rarely look beyond the first page of results.13 14 We searched the internet in May 2007 for sites providing instructions and information about methods of suicide using the four most popular …

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