Pro-suicide websites pushed my teenage son to take his own life
Campaigner urges action to control access to ‘terrifying’ swathe of legal sites
Charlotte Philby is a writer at The Independent with a weekly column on motherhood in The Independent Magazine. She was shortlisted for the 2013 Cudlipp award for excellence in popular journalism for her undercover investigative work, and writes for various cultural magazines.
Thursday 14 August 2014
To those who knew him, Tim was a model teenager. The quieter of twin boys, he was a brilliant pupil at the private school in Wiltshire where he served as head boy.
Tim and his brother moved to the local comprehensive to study for A-levels. He was well liked, and was predicted to get four As. But one evening in November 2002, “seemingly out of the blue”, at the age of 16, Tim took his own life.
“I last saw him the night before, when I said good night. We shook hands as we did every night,” his father recalls. “I was going off to London that morning for work. I called out into his room to say goodbye without response. I thought maybe he was just asleep.”
It was on the train to the office where he worked as a civil servant that Martyn Piper got the call from his wife, Hazel. “Shock hardly begins to describe how I felt. I was stunned and horrified and couldn’t believe it, frankly.”
Unsurprisingly, nearly 12 years later the pain has not dulled. “He was already a fine man. It is a feeling of loss and a waste of a good and talented young man.”
It was only after his son’s death, when police took away the family’s computers as part of their investigations, that Tim’s parents understood that their son had been suffering clinical depression.
On the day he died, Tim had entered the word “suicide” into a search engine and followed instructions on one of a number of sites where people promote and encourage others at their lowest ebbs to take their own lives.
While Mr Piper accepts his son’s depression played a pivotal role in his death, he wonders whether Tim would still be alive today had he not found what he was looking for at that moment. “If he hadn’t taken his own life at that point who knows what might have happened? He might have felt able to talk to a friend or one of us, or he quite simply might never have felt that low again.”
Mr Piper has spent the past decade campaigning for greater control of the internet – now as head of internet safety campaigns for Papyrus, a charity set up for the prevention of young suicide. He is calling for stricter controls over a “terrifying” swathe of pro-suicide websites.
These sites, Mr Piper believes, pose “the greatest risk to young people online today”. “They push and pull people when they are at their most vulnerable,” he says. “If you can limit the access to means, this is something that is shown to reduce suicide,” he says.
It is a “moot point”, he suggests, as to whether these sites are legal or not. “It is illegal to ‘help or assist’ someone to kill themselves in real life, so are sites where people are egged on to do it not illegal too?”
Among its legislative calls, Papyrus wants suicide and self-harm sites to be included in the filtering provided by internet service providers in the same way that certain pornographic and gambling sites, as well as images of child abuse, already are. “We accept it’s difficult to regulate the internet though we don’t believe it’s impossible.”
The way the online and offline worlds are so linked for children today, Mr Piper doesn’t believe many young people would attempt to take their own lives without consulting the internet.
By leaving vulnerable children free to find these sites within a couple of clicks of the keyboard, he says we are failing to save lives.
“Instead of being an afterthought, these sites should be right at the heart of our focus. The point is with suicide sites and chatrooms, we know they can and do lead to young people and vulnerable people’s deaths. We know that because it did it for my son.”
Raised voices charities back ‘one contact’ clause
To help make the internet a safer environment for young people, The Independent is calling for the Government to pass legislation that means police need only to prove a groomer had contacted their victim once rather than twice, as is now the case. Charities backing the call include the NSPCC, Young Minds, Hope UK, Off the Record and Safermedia.
Tam Baillie, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, says: “In Scotland the police can already act on first contact. While I would not want to specifically comment on other jurisdictions it would make sense for the protection of children and young people from online abuse, to have a consistent approach across the UK.”
Sam Royston, head of policy and public affairs at the Children’s Society, says: “Most parents will probably be shocked that as the law stands, an adult can contact a child online to arrange a meeting with the intention of sexually abusing them, and the police are powerless to intervene until they do it again. The dangers children face online are changing rapidly and the law needs to keep up.”
Louise Mensch, the former MP who was a victim of cyberbullying, says: “One contact by a groomer is one too many. If a paedophile attempts to groom a child for sex, it should be a criminal offence. Why should a child need to be endangered twice before police act?”
Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, says: “Teachers take child protection and internet safety very seriously. If the ‘one contact’ clause can be used effectively to protect children from abuse it has the support of the union.”
Martyn Piper, of Papyrus, says: “We are happy to support the call for stronger action on grooming and believe this needs to encompass grooming for suicide. Sites and chatrooms encouraging suicide lead to the deaths of vulnerable young people.”
Samaritans is available round-the-clock on 08457 90 90 90 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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