For millions of teenage fans, the internet site Bebo is a place to swap photos, gossip and while away the long hours of boredom that are part and parcel of growing up. But for a significant minority, the social networking site is more, much more.
A small town in south Wales has unwittingly found itself at the epicentre of what police fear could be an internet suicide cult. Senior detectives are investigating 13 young suicides during the past year in the Bridgend area, including the most recent: that of Natasha Randall, 17, who was found hanged at her family home 10 days ago. Two friends are still recovering, after trying to take their own lives within 24 hours of hearing about her.
The spate of deaths has exposed systemic failings in a country with no suicide-prevention strategy. From next week, Mind Cymru, the mental health charity, will launch a series of workshops aimed at those most at risk: college students and young professionals.
Madeleine Moon, MP for Bridgend, said: "We will be rolling out suicide-intervention training into schools and colleges."
Papyrus, a charity dedicated to preventing young suicides, estimates that every year in the UK 600-800 people aged 15 to 24 take their own lives – equivalent to an average secondary school. In all, some 1,600 people under 35 take their own lives annually. In 2006, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, there were 5,554 suicides in people aged 15 and over in the UK.
The sad irony of the wave of deaths in Bridgend is that hundreds more suicide eulogies are springing up on the web on an hourly basis. Almost 6,000 people have paid tribute to Natasha Randall on her Bebo page, R.I.P. Natasha, with a similar number also flocking to the website Gonetoosoon.com.
Charities are very worried that all the publicity could aggravate the situation. Anthony Langhan, of the Samaritans, said: We need to let young people know it's OK to seek help."
Samaritans: 08457 90 90 90 or samaritans.org