Introduction by Croakey: Steps can be taken to ensure young people are safer online – an environment that can be both beneficial and harmful, according to Associate Professor Jo Robinson and Dr Louise La Sala from Orygen.
Their work has led the development of the second edition of the #chatsafe guidelines, released last week, which now cover not only suicide but self harm, with support and resources for young people, parents and families, educators and communities bereaved by suicide.
However, Robinson and La Sala also warn that no one approach is likely to be sufficient and that government, the social media industry, and the suicide prevention sector need to work together, with the voices of young people front and centre.
Jo Robinson and Louise La Sala write:
The first three months of this year has seen an increase in the number of youth suicides in Victoria, particularly in young teens, according to the Victorian State Coroner.
Rates of youth suicide across the country are stubbornly high. The reasons for this are complex and likely driven by a number of factors including mental ill-health and access to healthcare as well as the social determinants of health such as access to education, employment, housing, financial security and so on.
Indeed, as we wait for tonight’s Federal Budget it is more important than ever that we tackle issues like inequities in healthcare access, Youth Allowance and rates of JobSeeker in young people as well as the wider population.
However, concerns also exist about the role of social media on rates of suicide and self-harm. Specifically, around the ability for young people to share and access potentially harmful information including about methods of suicide.
Concerns also exist around the ways in which the platform algorithms work, potentially targeting vulnerable young people with distressing or even harmful content.
At the National Suicide Prevention Australia conference last week, we released the second edition of the #chatsafe guidelines which are evidence-informed and designed to help young people communicate safely about suicide online.
Benefits of social media
The ways in which young people communicate online, or respond to content posted by others, is nuanced, and what may be harmful for some may be helpful for others.
Our work, as well as that of others, has identified that social media can provide an accessible environment for young people to communicate about suicide and self-harm in ways they can’t offline, It also allows them to seek help – important given current pressures on the healthcare system. Social media can also provide a sense of connectedness – thereby potentially mitigating some of the factors that may actually increase risk of suicide.
Therefore, we need to identify ways to capitalise on the benefits of social media whilst at the same time mitigating the risks. But how? Our work has focused on three potential levers for change.
Education and resources
The first is educating young people about the ways they can keep themselves and their friends safe when communicating online about suicide. To this end we developed the world-first #chatsafe guidelines in 2018.
They were based on an expert consensus study and contained guidance for young people on how to safely share their own experiences, how to respond to suicide-related content posted by others, and how to communicate about someone who had died by suicide – either a celebrity or public figure, or a friend or family member.
The guidelines were supported by a national social media campaign co-designed with young people and were well-received with more than 90,000 downloads since their release.
The impact of the #chatsafe program has been tested and shown to improve young people’s perceived safety when communicating about suicide and increase their willingness to intervene against suicide online. It is currently being further tested in a randomised controlled trial.
However, many would argue that it is insufficient to only educate and equip young people; we also need to better equip the adults in young people’s lives. To address this, we developed a suite of adult-facing resources targeting communities bereaved by suicide, parents and families, and educators.
However social media moves fast and so the #chatsafe guidelines have now been updated, with the new guidelines covering not only suicide but also self-harm. They also include guidance to help influencers communicate safely about these topics, and guidance on how to respond to suicide games, hoaxes and livestreams. But educating and equipping individual users should not be the only solution.
A second lever for change lies with the social media industry itself and many have called on it to improve safety standards, in particular for their younger users.
At the conference, we also presented data from our recent (as yet unpublished) study where we specifically asked both young people and suicide prevention professionals what more they thought the social media industry could be doing to improve online safety.
Suggestions included developing clear policies regarding communication about self-harm and suicide, having clear functions for reporting breaches of these policies, hosting safety centres on their platforms, providing content warnings ahead of self-harm or suicide-related content, and actively promoting helpful content.
In fact, the industry makes efforts to maintain safety on their platforms and already implement some of the suggestions noted above. For example, companies such as Meta have safety policies; most also have safety centres that share evidence-based resources and links to helplines or other support services.
However, there is always more that could be done and many argue that their current efforts are simply tinkering around the edges and more structural approaches such as algorithmic reform are urgently required.
But again, these steps are unlikely to be sufficient alone, not least because we cannot rely on the industry to self-regulate to the standard demanded by the public.
Therefore, a final lever for change is increased oversight by the Federal government. Indeed, many countries are taking stronger steps in this direction. For example, the UK and the USA both have online safety bills in various stages of submission to parliament.
In Australia, we also have an Online Safety Act although it doesn’t specifically address content related to self-harm or suicide. Arguably, Australia has taken the lead when it comes to online safety through the establishment of an e-Safety Commission, a specific government agency whose role is to regulate online safety for all Australians.
In our study (cited above) we also asked participants what more they thought the government could be doing to keep younger users safe online.
Participants recognised that the speed at which social media platforms evolve makes it hard for legislation to keep up. They believed that more agile systems of policy development and implementation are required, with systems in place to monitor adherence to any safety frameworks developed.
They also called on government to support public health campaigns promoting safe online communication about self-harm and suicide plus educational programs for schools. Finally, there was strong agreement that government should collaborate with international counterparts to develop a set of international safety standards.
What was also evident from this study was that no one approach is likely to be sufficient. Rather, there is a need for government, the industry, and the suicide prevention sector to work together, with the voices of young people front and centre.
Suicide rates in young people are increasing, as are rates of self-harm and mental ill-health. As noted above the reasons for this are complex and blaming social media alone is an oversimplification. But there are steps we can take to make social media platforms safer environments for our young people.
The Australian Government is in the process of developing its new suicide prevention strategy and based on the findings from our work to date and the voices of the young people we work with, we call on the government to ensure that online safety forms part of the future of suicide prevention in this country.
About the authors
Associate Professor Jo Robinson is a professor and head of the suicide prevention unit at Orygen. She is funded by a NHMRC Investigator Grant.
Dr Louise La Sala is a post-doctoral research fellow at Orygen. She is funded by a Suicide Prevention Australia Post-doctoral Research Fellowship.
The #chatsafe project is funded by the Commonwealth Department of Health. The guidelines can be downloaded from the Orygen website.
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