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New #Chatsafe Guidelines Can Help U.S. Teens Safely Discuss Suicide Online

by Jo Robinson of Orygen, The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health and Victor Schwartz from The Jed Foundation

Never has the relationship between social media and youth suicide been under so much scrutiny, and with increasing numbers of young people taking their own lives, and recent high profile cases where the suicides of young people have (at least partly) been influenced by social media, this level of attention is well justified.

We know that certain types of reporting about suicide in the media can have negative effects, particularly those who may already be vulnerable to suicide. In response, many countries, the United States included, have developed guidelines for media to facilitate safe communication on this topic, and evidence suggests that this has had beneficial effects – although the evidence is less clear when it comes to the impacts on young people.

However, the advent of social media has changed the media landscape considerably, especially for young people, who are its most frequent users. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat (to name a few) allow young people to create and share their own stories (including about suicide) at will, and they allow these stories to spread further and faster than ever before. This also means that young people more and more are being exposed to suicide-related content posted by, or about, others.

But is this all bad? Our work highlights a number of important benefits that social media platforms provide in communicating about suicide. These include, but are by no means limited to, the sense of community these platforms can provide, their accessible and non-judgmental nature, and the ability to not only seek help but also to provide it to others. Additionally, and crucially, for many social media users is the first step when it comes to talking about a subject that is so heavily stigmatized in society.

Yet, despite these benefits, there are still significant concerns about the dangers of young people using social media to talk about (and particularly to show images of) suicide, and guidelines designed for journalists and other professionals are likely to have limited traction among this population.

In response to this, and with funding provided by the Australian Government, we (Orygen) developed the #chatsafe guidelines. These were co-developed with young people and are specifically designed to facilitate safe communication about suicide on social media. They are meant for use on any social media platform and cover issues like:

  • Things to consider before posting about suicide
  • How to share your own story safely
  • Content or trigger warnings
  • How to reach out to someone you are worried about
  • Talking about celebrity suicides
  • Tips for moderating a memorial page or closed group safely

The guidelines don’t tell young people what to do; rather they include a range of practical tips that are designed to help young people to keep themselves, and each other, safe online. They also give young people some language to use when talking to others about suicide, as all too often young people tell us that they want to seek help, or want to help a friend, but simply do not have the skills or confidence to do so. And importantly they provide helpline information and emergency numbers in case of a crisis.

In the U.S., Orygen has partnered with The Jed Foundation and Stanford’s Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing to adapt the content to a U.S. based youth audience.

The guidelines are being brought to life via a co-designed social media campaign that will break them down into more sharable and relatable content such as videos, animations and images.

Whilst it is early days for the #chatsafe guidelines they have been extremely popular in Australia and we hope that will be the case here in the U.S.

Social media provides an important environment for young people to talk, including about difficult topics such as suicide, and simply trying to shut down these conversations is not the answer. We need to empower and equip young people to have these conversations safely and we hope that #chatsafe and #chatsafeUS are a big step in the right direction.

The guidelines are freely available to download on Orygen’s website.

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