The night before Tallulah Wilson killed herself, the 15-year-old’s mother discovered her secret internet life.
Tallulah had been sharing photographs of her self-harm with others on the blogging website Tumblr under a false identity. Her mother, Sarah Wilson described what she found on 13 October last year as “like the worst horror movie you have ever seen in your house”.
Speaking this week at her daughter’s inquest, which is expected to end on Tuesday, she said: “I realised there were young girls on there cutting themselves to see who is worse... It’s shocking what these young people are up to. All these girls are basically trying to outdo each other.”
It does not take long to find the darker side of Tumblr – a site intended for the creative sharing of images and other content. One search can bring up a collage of ghastly scenes and bleak phrases. The impact of such an onslaught of despair – even for someone in good mental health – is powerful.
A spokeswoman for the site said it had a policy to remove blogs which encourage self-harm as soon as they were aware of them. She also pointed out that searches relating to self-harm or suicide prompt a pop-up directing users to counselling sites.
Martyn Piper knows first-hand how fatal the internet can be in the hands of a teenager already suffering from depression. Ten years ago his 17-year-old son Tim killed himself after researching suicide on the family PC.
“I can still remember the police taking away our computer after our son killed himself,” he told The Independent. “When the policeman told us what was on it I was utterly astonished that such things existed on the internet.
“We only had one computer in those days, which we shared, but it was relatively easy even then for him to go where he wanted to on it. Nowadays it’s even harder because kids have laptops and smartphones and iPads.”
Now Mr Piper leads a web safety campaign for the young suicide charity Papyrus. He wants the Government to make internet service providers (ISPs) offer child protection filters for suicidal content, in the same way as they have for pornography.
He said: “The Government has made strides in blocking sites that promote child abuse and we argue that sites which discuss and promote suicide in a similar way should also be blocked.”
“There’s a great confluence of danger here. It used to be accessible in your bedroom at home but now it’s on your smartphone 24 hours a day and there’s no barrier at all. You don’t need to go very far to get very graphic information and, I’m afraid, pictures about how to kill yourself or self-harm.”
A Department for Culture Media and Sport spokeswoman said the Government took child safety online “very seriously”. She added: “The four main ISPs have committed to giving their customers an unavoidable decision on installing family-friendly filters that will protect all devices in the home. The filters are set up to allow parents to prevent their children from accessing suicide and self-harm sites as well as other potentially harmful content.”
Suicides among those aged 15 to 19 went up 14 per cent between 2010 and 2011, to 194. These latest official figures show the suicide rate amongst teenagers is at its highest since 2004 – coinciding with the rise of smartphones and social media.
But it would be misleading to suggest that teenage suicide rates have soared since the advent of the internet. The peak in teenage suicides since the Office for National Statistics began recording them was in 1988, when 289 15-19 year-olds took their own life.
Despite this, the possibility of a link between internet use, suicide and self-harm is one that academics are keen to get to investigate. A major Department of Health investigation into the issue began at the University of Bristol earlier this month. The researchers, who are working with The Samaritans and Papyrus, will be gathering evidence until 2016.
Medical sociologist Lucy Biddle is leading the project. She said: “There’s no doubt you can access some pretty horrible stuff very quickly. For young people looking compulsively it might be the thing that tips them over the edge.”
Though the tragic deaths of teenagers make headlines, the most likely demographic to commit suicide is still middle-aged men. In 2011, the number of 40- to 44-year-olds taking their own lives was 770, of which 611 were men.
For this reason, Dr Biddle wants to be sure that the study does not focus too narrowly on teenagers. “The internet is relevant to middle-aged men too because they’re a group that experience more stigma around seeking help for things like depression.”
There are plenty of high-profile examples in which the internet seems to have been a negative influence on those suffering from depression, but there is also evidence that the web is a lifeline for some vulnerable people. Dr Biddle said: “We’re very keen to look into the internet’s potential for preventing suicides. There’s definitely peer support going on.”
She explains: “The internet works in different ways for different people. We know there are cases where the internet has had a negative impact and people research ways to kill themselves or read news articles about novel methods. But conversely there are also people that derive a lot of benefit from it. This is especially the case for young people who don’t willingly seek help from services; some of these chat rooms might be a source of support for those people.”
In the case of Tallulah Wilson, it was the internet which prevented her first suicide attempt from being fatal. A friend who saw that she had posted about an overdose called Tallulah’s mother at home to tip her off. It was only because of this phone call that Sarah Wilson got to her daughter in time and was able to get her to hospital for treatment.
The intervention will be of little comfort to her family as they await the verdict in her inquest. But it shows the internet has the potential to be life-saving as well as deadly.