The tragedy of Tallulah: How a secret online identity took over a girl’s life

The suicide of a 15-year-old girl has exposed the dangers that lurk on the internet for vulnerable minds

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.

A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Morrissey pictured in 2013
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Robyn Lawley
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    MS Dynamics NAV Developer

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: MS Dynamics NAV...

    Technical / Engineering Manager - West Yorkshire - £50k+

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: The company ...

    MS Dynamics NAV Developer

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: **MS Dynamics N...

    Data Analytics Manager

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading organisation...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star