Hard News by Russell Brown

85

Panic

On Saturday, The Press reported that "demands are growing for tough measures to combat 'toxic' content on social networking websites after a Bebo site was linked to a string of suicides.

"New Zealand authorities have been contacted over seven suicides in Bridgend, South Wales, that have been linked to a Bebo website called Suicide Girls."

The story is almost 100% nonsense.

It's a lift from one in that bastion of journalistic standards, The Sun, which breathlessly reported thus:

TODAY we can reveal the shocking way suicide among teens is glamourised on social networking sites like Bebo.

The sad news that seven young people from Bridgend in South Wales killed themselves in an apparent "chain" of copycat suicides has led police to fear some hoped to gain "web fame".

Some of the dead - who all hanged themselves - had profile pages on Bebo, a popular site with school kids.

A quick internet search reveals one profile under the name Suicide Girls.

It carries a disturbing cartoon picture of a pink teddy bear hanging from a rope.

A line on the page says the site is, "For people who don't give a f*** and want a suicide lifestyle," adding it is "For Girls and Boys Who Love Tattoos, Piercings and Crazy Stuff."

In a discussion forum, user Amy Addiction posts, "For the people who keep asking what a suicide lifestyle is - well this is all to do with suicide girls, like the models, so yeah lifestyle like them ... glamorous, pretty etc."

While the Bebo page does not in any way encourage suicide among its users, fears have been raised about its possible influence on vulnerable youths.

So … Some of the young people involved had Bebo profiles. Among several million other Bebo profiles is one which references Suicide Girls. Both stories invite youth suicide experts to express shock and horror.

There is no cause to believe that any of the young people had ever seen the profile in question. There is, similarly, no evidence to suggest that any the young people to have taken their lives over the past year had seen any website that glamorised or facilitated suicide.

The only victims known to be Bebo users were the last three to die, and the only direct involvement of the site was that the last to take her life (and the only young woman), Natasha Randall, posted a message on a memorial site to her friend, Liam Clarke (as did many others), before killing herself. Two of Natasha Randall's friends tried to take their lives after hearing of her death.

Until last week, the British news media regularly reported such rushes to pay tribute on Bebo memorial sites or on gonetoosoon.co.uk as good news. Now, The Telegraph feels able to say "A recent spate of teenage suicides has been linked to social networking sites, which detectives fear have been used to glorify the deaths." (Actually, the police appear to have been at pains to deny they believe anything of the sort.) And The Independent, always keen to be the most panic-stricken of the "quality" papers, resorts to simply making up its story: "A small town in south Wales has unwittingly found itself at the epicentre of what police fear could be an internet suicide cult."

Naturally, the British government is rushing to be seen to do something about the dread threat of Bebo, and parenting gurus are darkly intoning.

There has been the odd voice of restraint, with Kathy Brewis's observation in The Times that <a href="http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/families/article3255
942.ece" target="_blank">suicide clusters amongst young people are not new. Perhaps the memorial sites, with their intimations of posthumous fame, create a copycat risk. But that means they are also an avenue for support, and that the news media should report on them carefully.

But the newspapers there write what they will, and our own papers pick up stories from The Sun, call a local "expert" or two, and no one really bothers too much with the facts.

Anyway, for the record: Suicide Girls has nothing to do with suicide. The name (and the teddy bear) is just a gesture of gothic transgression. Suicide Girls (Wikipedia entry here) is a tits-'n'-tatts alt-erotica website and online community on which the contracted models take pride in managing their own affairs and fostering their personal brands via MySpace and Bebo. The verse on another Bebo profile may be illuminating.

Their queen is Posh (NSFW), a professional graphic designer who digs Battlestar Galactica and the Arcade Fire, goes out with Kevin Rose from Digg.com and not only plays World of Warcraft ("+6 vs. trolls"), but has appeared in it. She writes for the Geek section of the Suicide Girls website and is, objectively speaking, totally hot, but regards her brain as her major asset.

She is possibly not where most parents want to see their teenage daughters, but she is not urging them to harm themselves -- unless you count pierced nipples.

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