Background: Young people are susceptible to suicidal behavior as a result of learning about the suicidal behavior of others. This study was designed to determine whether Internet sites, such as online news and social networking websites, expose young people to suicide stories that might increase suicide ideation.
Method: We reinterviewed 719 young people ages 14 to 24 who had participated in a prior nationally representative survey. Respondents reported knowledge of persons they knew who had committed or attempted suicide as well as personal experiences of hopelessness and suicidal ideation on both occasions. On the second occasion one year later, they also reported use of various Internet platforms and how often they had been exposed to suicide stories on those sites, as well as from personal sources. Changes in ideation as a function of exposure to different sources of suicide stories were analyzed holding constant prior hopelessness and ideation.
Results: While traditional sources of information about suicide were most often cited (79% were from friends and family or newspapers), online sources were also quite common (59%). Social networking sites were frequently cited as sources, but these reports were not linked to increases in ideation. However, online discussion forums were both cited as sources and associated with increases in ideation.
Conclusions: The Internet and especially social networking sites are important sources of suicide stories. However, discussion forums appear to be particularly associated with increases in suicidal ideation. Greater efforts should be undertaken to promote Internet sites directed to young people that enhance effective coping with hopelessness and suicidal ideation.