Online forums and self harm and suicide

The suicide of 15-year-old Tallulah Wilson is the latest to be linked to disturbing online forums. We talk to the devastated parents calling for change

‘We cut and kill flowers because we think they’re beautiful,” reads the blog post, written in a child’s scrawl. “We cut and kill ourselves because we think we are not.” Beneath it is a photograph, taken from the neck down. The subject’s sleeve is rolled up. The words “You are pathetic” have been scratched into their forearm with a penknife.

One click and another image pops up. “You never thought blood was pretty – until you saw it bleeding out of your own skin,” reads this one. There is a cartoon depicting Mickey Mouse hanging from a noose; a photograph of a girl, her hips purple with bruises; another of a slit wrist. “I remember the first time…” someone else has typed, next to a picture of a pencil sharpener, its blades removed.
These horrific words and disturbing images do not come from the darkest corners of the internet. Nor were they found in password-protected chatrooms, nor age-verified forums. They are posted on a free blogging site, one with 160 million, mostly young, users.

Members of social network sites owned can access this harrowing content by typing “self-harm” into a search box and dismissing a warning. Elsewhere on the internet, a simple Google search produces tens of thousands of “pro-self-harm” websites.

It was this toxic digital world that lured Tallulah Wilson, the 15-year-old aspiring ballet dancer whose inquest concluded this week in London. No parent could look at that beautiful, youthful face and not see their own daughter. Tallulah, a talented teenager from West Hampstead who had been head-hunted by the Royal Ballet School, became addicted to the internet after developing clinical depression.

She created a fantasy character online, a cocaine-taking anorexic, and began posting distraught messages and photographs of her self-inflicted cuts. Before her mother discovered her blog and asked Social networking site to take it down, she had amassed 18,000 followers. Devastated that her online world had been taken away, Tallulah threw herself in front of a train at St Pancras station in October 2012.

Speaking after the inquest, her mother Sarah demanded action to “stop this poison spreading”, urging websites to protect vulnerable teenagers. “She had fallen into a world of nightmares,” she said in a statement. “I was shocked by the ease with which Tallulah and other children can access online self-harm blogs. Tallulah entered a world where the lines between fantasy and reality became blurred.”

Though the issue of self-harm is no longer taboo, the online communities springing up among sufferers – many of them perpetuating and exacerbating the illness – remain largely unregulated and rarely discussed. One of the largest, featuring horrifying user photographs of cuts, scars and burns, has hundreds of members around the world. Many of the 22,000 young people treated in Britain’s hospitals in 2012 for self-inflicted injuries will have visited, contributed to and been “inspired” by these sites. For some, like Tallulah, the consequences may be tragic.

Delving into this dark digital space reveals websites, blogs and forums devoted to the most insidious of subjects. Some take self-destruction to unimaginable extremes, with users “liking” and sharing images and accounts of self-mutilation and suicide. Members discuss in detail how they might hurt themselves or even take their own lives.

Stephen Habgood, a retired prison governor from Staffordshire, is another victim of this world. In March 2009, he lost his son, Christopher, 26, who shortly before his death had begun accessing websites about suicide. It was here, his father believes, that he found the means and encouragement to take his own life.

“He had suffered for many years from depression,” explains Stephen, now chairman of the charity Papyrus, which is dedicated to the prevention of young suicides. “But he was very bright, very funny, very good looking. He always had girlfriends. He was doing a course in forensic computing at Stafford University and he was staying away from home. Like many young people, he liked going online. I never imagined it could end the way it did.”

After Christopher’s death, Stephen found out that he had tried to kill himself once before, and had gone online to look for an alternative method. “It was clear from his computer that he’d downloaded a book and that he’d visited sites that encouraged him and talked about methods,” he says. “I was only aware of the websites afterwards because he left a series of notes. He said he was ashamed; worn out from trying to live a life of pretence.”

Psychologists, who have an insight into online communities via their patients, say they are growing in influence. Julie Lynn Evans, a psychotherapist who works with young people, says users become part of a “destructive club” from which it is difficult to escape.

“If you’re playing around the edges, you go on and they encourage you,” she adds. “They only talk to that side of your personality, spurring you on. You’re by yourself, being urged to do the worst. It’s completely unmonitored. They encourage that sickness with no sensible guide towards wellness.”

Rachel Summers, a mother-of-two from north London, says that her daughter, who started self-harming at the age of 15, wasn’t speaking to strangers but friends online. “She did go on websites a lot, late into the night,” her mother recalls. “She was talking to her peers; they were egging each other on. She was at a very academic school and there was this little group who competed to see who had the most cuts and who could do it in the most extreme way.”

Rachel confiscated collections of scissors, blades and penknives from her daughter’s room, and persuaded her to attend therapy. Seven years later, she is fully recovered. “We weren’t aware of what the internet could do back then,” Rachel says. “It’s really frightening; you have no idea who they’re talking to. We tried Net Nanny and other software, but you can’t stop them. I don’t know how you police this – it’s an addiction.”

Though safeguards have been proposed none seems to be working. Harmful content floods the internet, infecting damaged young minds with vile ideas and destructive desires. Yet some experts argue that banning the sites, or removing content on blogs through controls imposed by internet service providers – risks driving communities further underground.

Heather Maitland, a mother-of-three from Chester, agrees the solution is more complex. Her daughter, Sara, was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at 15, and Heather found out she had been secretly self-harming. “She does it when she gets very low, generally when she’s eaten less,” she says. “She thumps her hips, pinches herself until she bruises, scratches a particular area on her hand until it bleeds.”

As Sara, now 19, started to recover, she joined an online community of young people going through similar experiences. “It’s like her little friendship group,” says Heather. “We are very open about it and it is a positive thing for her. But we both know she has to let it go one day. The longer you stay within that community, the more it saps you of reality, and I believe that’s what happened with Tallulah. She had low self-esteem and she was sucked deeper and deeper into this vortex of horror.”

Whatever form they take, Caroline Roe, director of the charity Harmless and a former self-harmer, says safeguards are imperative. “When it comes to social networking, we’re all a bit apathetic because we’re worried about limiting freedom of speech,” she says. “But suicide is the second biggest killer [of young people] in our country. We know these things are risk factors and that our young people are exposed to them. These websites are harmful and I fail to understand why we are not taking more considerable action against them.”

More than 91 per cent of young people in Britain have internet access at home, and 75 per cent on their mobiles. Any one of them can enter the same toxic world that poisoned the minds of Tallulah and Christopher; a world that can do untold damage.

In recent years, the Government has tackled another online scourge which threatens young people. The campaign against internet pornography and the proliferation of child abuse images online has been effective, with blocking filters due to come into force in 20 million households later this year. Moreover, Prime Minister David Cameron warned search engines that the removal of such content was not simply necessary, but a moral duty. Surely web content promoting self-harm and suicide must be our next target?

“In my work now, I do everything I can to help other people’s children,” says Stephen Habgood. “One of our campaigns is to have taken down websites which encourage and support this kind of behaviour. It makes me so angry that they exist. Young people who have mental health issues are prey to people who will exploit them online and we need to show them that there are places to get help.”

He does all this, he says, for Christopher. He was his only child – and the internet robbed him of a future. “Every day I miss having him around,” says Stephen. “I miss making plans with him, laughing and joking with him. I just miss him being in my life.”

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