“Suicide and technology: a useful servant but a dangerous master?”
The suicide of the Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput has sparked a movement of mental health and depression. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are flooded with posts and stories encouraging people to seek help. Could technology have played a role in abetting his suicide, or maybe, preventing it? Let’s delve deeper into this.
To begin with, here are some hard-hitting facts: in just the five years between 2010 and 2015, when having smartphones because the new norm, the number of teens who felt useless and joyless (classic symptoms of depression) surged 33%. Teen suicide attempts increased 23%. Even more troubling is this: the number of 13 to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31%. And, this is across social and economic backgrounds – more privileged and less privileged, across all races and ethnicities and across regions.
Technology, specifically social media platforms, have given a boost to depression and birth to a phenomenon termed as ‘high-tech suicide’. Suicide and technology seem to have become partners in crime.
A Bengali girl hung herself to death while live-streaming the act on Facebook (apparently with help from her boyfriend who watched while she ended her life). In another shocking incident, a girl went live and threw herself under a train. One adult took an overdose of pills while live-streaming it. And the list of high-tech suicides seems to be only increasing with time. The inescapable fact is that technology has brought an unfortunate new dimension to suicide. Facebook and other platforms have seen more than their share of suicide-related content, from users hinting at harming themselves to outright live broadcasts.
By the way, if you do a search of some of the most commonly searched terms related to suicide (eg: best ways to commit suicide, painless ways to commit suicide, how to kill yourself, etc.), and analyse the top 10 results for each of these searches, you’ll be shocked to find that a majority of these are pro-suicide. They do not even mention a line on ‘seek help’.
There is also a concept of ‘cybersuicide pact’ that has become increasingly popular. It is an agreement between 2 or more people to die by suicide at a particular time and often by the same lethal means. Strangers are forming such pacts via chat rooms, bulletins and other related technologies and ending lives together.
Social media and happiness factor
Several studies have repeatedly proved a strong connection between the time spent on social media and unhappiness. The more time you spend on social media, the more unhappy you feel. Every time the result has been the same. Did you know that interacting with people face-to-face is the deepest source of wellbeing for humans? It is what differentiates the human species from animals. We are ‘social’ animals. Unfortunately, technology may have gotten us connected with the world, but has distanced us from those sitting next to us. Technology has also eaten into the sleep time of many individuals. Lack of sleep, too, is one of the prominent causes of depression among humans.
Blue whale challenge + momo challenge
Remember ‘the blue whale challenge’? It worked like a mysterious dark force luring vulnerable teens into doing challenges and eventually killing themselves. There’s another one to picking up steam – ‘the momo challenge’. Young people are persuaded to play along and go through a series of tasks ending in death. It began on Whatsapp and then transitioned into YouTube videos and hidden challenges in the popular game Minecraft. Thanks to technology, it is spreading like wildfire.
Did you know: the third leading cause of death amongst youth (aged 10-24) is suicide?
In a digitally connected world, according to reports, 92% of teens go online daily and 72% report they spend time with friends on social media. It has become critically important to devise anti-cyber-bullying and suicide prevention tools and resources that youth can reach out to when they socialize online.
Talking about suicide and technology, cyber-bullying has played a prominent role. Social media is now a new and increasingly popular factor in making harassment, stalking and pressure easier to occur. Since the global lockdowns and work from home guidelines, cases of sexual abuse have increased multifold. There have been more and more cases of cyber-bullying related to suicide. In fact, a term is coined for suicides due to cyber-bullying. It is ‘cyberbullicide’. That’s how rampant this is.
Are social media platforms doing their bit to turn the tables around?
The affiliation between suicide and technology is not unseen by social media platforms. They are beginning to take action to recognize early signs of depression among people and offer an opportunity to help. Many social networks have a method in place to let its users flag posts that they think may contain warning signs. If users miss these signs or choose not to take action for fear of being too personal, now there are algorithms that pick up on posts that look suicidal. The algorithms then hand such posts off to human reviewers who vet them and contact helplines, first responders or families.
Google’s internet search engine has incorporated a feature that displays a link and message about suicide prevention lifelines at the top of the search page when keyword searches suggest suicidal ideation or intent (e.g., “I want to die”). Facebook has a panic-button application imbibed on its platform to help teenagers report cyber-bullying.
Artificial intelligence and deep learning are powerful tools. These are slowly and steadily being exploited to identify trends and prevent suicides.
Why is technology more powerful than humans to detect suicidal behaviour?
It is well established that depressed individuals give out clear warning signs through their behaviour. Unfortunately, it is also well-established that human beings are not all that good at picking up on these signals. These could include changes in sleep patterns and appetite, a drop in social interaction or a reduction in activity level. A smartwatch or phone could help detect these patterns from where a neural network could pick up on them. AI can easily detect life changes that are relevant and bring help to the person at risk, whether it is by suggesting an action or alerting the family. Irregularities in a person’s health data, social media activity and much more can put together a picture of mental health faster than humans can. Legally speaking, of course there are grey areas and piracy concerns, but only time will refine these laws and ensure that technologies and platforms #HackForAGoodCause .
Coming back to Sushant Singh Rajput..
In a parallel universe, where technology would have advanced much more than its current status, these tools could have picked up trends by analysing Sushant Singh Rajput’s social media posts and digital footprints, like:
- His Instagram post dated 3rd June 2020 “blurred past evaporating from teardops, unending dreams carving an arc of smile, and a fleeting life, negotiating between the two”
- Sushant’s pleas via various stories and videos urging his fans to watch his movie, Son Chiriya, else he’d be out of a job
- His Instagram post dated 4th May 2020 captioned “our reality is not what actually reality seems to be”
- Singh’s Instagram post dated 23rd April 2020 captioned “to be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight”
- His Facebook post dated 19th November 2019 captioned “men have emotions too”
and more..and ensured that required help would reach him in the nick of time..
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Suicide and technology: a foe, or a friend?
There are several AI-backed chatbots that are helping those who want to talk, or simply want to share their silences. These are accessible 24*7. Several tools have also proven successful in trials whilst identifying signs of disturbance and suicidal tendencies. Technology, indeed, has the potential to help more than it can abet suicide. Technology, after all, is neutral. It is only as good or as bad as people make it.
Also read: can you spot the lie?