Suicides Spur Discussion of Online Information in UK
> 3/31/2008 2:46:48 PM

Isolated and contemplating suicide, many teenagers use the Internet as a safety net. While webpages can be a healthy outlet and a source of support and advice, they are also often homes to malicious bullies and misinformation. After allegations that the string of suicides in Bridgend, Wales was instigated by online pacts or encouragement, the British government commissioned an investigation into the ways that teenagers could and should be regulated on the Internet. The resulting report, "Safer Children in a Digital World," was completed by Dr. Tanya Byron and presented to the British government last week.

The Safer Children report contains over 200 pages of analysis and recommendation, ranging in topic from online games to predation, but the sections on suicide have received the most media attention. Rather than repeat hysterical warnings about the danger of the Internet, Dr. Byron presents a balanced breakdown of benefits and risks.

First off, Dr. Byron calls for a tighter definition of illegal suicide assistance so that police and moderators can figure out exactly what to report. Currently, there is a lot of confusion over what to do about websites that offer advice on methods of suicide. Dr. Byron points out the dangers of such sites, but goes on to posit that sites that do not go so far as to discuss methods should not be shut down. Her contention is that banning discussion deprives youths of vital space to share their dark thoughts and will only result in the problem being ignored until it is too late.

Rather than totally ban dialogue of suicide, Dr. Byron recommends training moderators to sensitively monitor discussions and intervene only when necessary. When human moderators are not possible, she recommends at least offering links to mental health resources. All of this can be achieved, according to the report, by cooperating with helpful non-profit organizations.

The British educational secretary, Ed Balls, praised the report and promised that its chief recommendations would be implemented. The American government should pay careful attention to the results, because teenagers in every country may be saved by gentle supervision rather than draconian censorship. Those in Generation X and after have grown up relying on an online social network, and parents and governments would be wiser to bolster and that network rather than destroy the benefits in the charge to root out the dangers. Rather than see the Internet as a frightening new threat, we can view it as useful tool for helping teenagers out of despair.

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