The internet can be a dangerous place for a depressed teenager – and the law must reflect that

Pro-suicide sites aimed at teenagers should be policed with the same vigour as online pornography and violence

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The Independent Online

I never liked the bit in the book of Peter Pan where, in among the business with the mermaids and the pirates, the Lost Boy crows his conviction that “Death will be an awfully big adventure". I didn’t like it as a child, and liked it less as a parent.

We now know that Peter’s creator, J M Barrie, was a tortured individual with complicated notions about mortality, but it seemed a creepy thing to read to wide-eyed infants in their jammies. Frankly, I preferred the Disney version.

It would be weird, and unhelpful, to attempt the wholesale Disneyfication of young people’s reading matter. Musings on mortality, from Hamlet’s soliloquy to Albert Camus’ philosophical poser (“Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?”), are intellectual rites of passage. But what do you do when adolescent existentialism tips over into the wholesale cult of death?

The mushrooming, in the unregulated waste of the internet, of pro-suicide sites, many of them aimed at teenagers, is a long way from Neverland. This week, Martyn Piper, head of internet safety campaigns at Papyrus, a charity for the prevention of young suicides, called for tighter Government control over websites which he considers “the greatest risk to young people online today”. Piper’s son, Tim, killed himself at the age of 16 after consulting and following instructions on such a site.

Some 700 under-25s take their own lives each year in the UK. We cannot guess what goes through their minds – this must be their parents’ daily torment – but we can assume that a “how to” manual is not what they need at their lowest ebb. Pro-suicide sites range from the baldly functional to pseudo-literary blogs wallowing in death’s dark glamour.

Some of them are jokey. Some of them, incredibly, carry advertising. They have become a genre, hotly defended on grounds of “ freedom of expression”. It’s not a genre that would be likely to find a publisher in the offline universe, but it’s a curious and convenient feature of cyberspace that freedom of expression goes, without irony, hand in hand with anonymity.


In 2008, Maria Eagle, then a justice minister, announced a crackdown on suicide websites, updating the language of the 1961 Suicide Act to reflect the challenge of the digital universe, but reform has been slow in coming. In 2010, the offence of “aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring” suicide was changed to “encouraging or assisting” suicide. While this modification bolstered the legal case against euthanasia or “assisted suicide”, it did little to shield the vulnerable from suicide “advice” on the internet. Crucially, the law as it stands fails to make explicit that what is illegal offline is equally illegal online, leaving a grey and fertile area for manipulation of the vulnerable.

There is something fundamentally unbalanced about a legislature that expends so much energy on “protecting” terminally ill people, of sound mind, who want to die with the assistance of people who love them, while mentally unbalanced youngsters are falling prey in their hundreds to anonymous promptings from their laptop. At the very least, pro-suicide sites aimed at teenagers should be policed with the same vigour as online pornography and violence.

It is unbearable to think of children losing their confidence that things will be better in the morning, worse than unbearable to think that they were pushed into ending their lives by a total stranger. So, we don’t think it. We want to believe Marilyn Monroe’s assurance that: “When you’re young and healthy, you can plan on Monday to commit suicide, and by Wednesday you’re laughing again.” It didn’t work for Marilyn. And it’s not a risk we can take.

Ever been so drunk you woke up with a lobster pot?

First there was drink-driving. Then there was drunk-dialling. Now we must be on our guard against “drink-buying”. Is that even a thing? Oh yes. According to research conducted by the price comparison website, one in five of us splash our cash online when we’re three sheets to the wind.

Amazon and eBay are the main beneficiaries of our lowered inhibitions, with sozzled shoppers spending up to £200 a pop on stuff they didn’t know they wanted until the Bacardi Breezers kicked in. Impulse items from clothes and washing machines to lobster pots (no, really, that’s what it says) are flying off the shelves at pub closing time.

I guess it’s just a new kind of “beer goggles” – the handy device that turn unlikely individuals into objects of unparalleled desire. One minute you’re checking the “favourites” box for your Tesco delivery, the next you’re seized by the conviction that: a) you are a size zero; and b) the very thing you need to maintain your new size-zero life is a tiny little dress and a lifetime’s supply of lobster.

I think, on the whole, these may be better than the old goggles. You can always find a use for a lobster pot in the morning.

Cliff’s very private life doesn’t make him guilty

It was only a matter of time before they got around to Cliff Richard. I absolutely understand that police must investigate allegations of “historic sex abuse”. So, in fairness, does Cliff who has co-operated with his usual good manners. But I can’t for the life of me see why these allegations are invariably reported as “following decades of speculation” about the singer’s private life.

The investigation is necessary. The speculation was only ever prurient, an unreasonably irritated reaction to an individual who, in an age of chronic over-sharing, has chosen to keep his personal life private.

And what exactly are these “speculations” that have been dragged into every news story? The astonishing possibility that he might be gay. Who could care less? And in what world does an accusation of abuse of a minor “follow” from homosexuality? If Operation Yewtree has taught us anything, it is that paedophilia is no respecter of sexual orientation. To suggest otherwise is irresponsible. Cliff, like anyone else, is innocent until proved guilty. It’s not yet a crime to be a bachelor.

Today’s pin-ups could learn a thing or two from Bacall

Lauren Bacall was a class act, a dame in the best sense of the word. I loved her look, I loved her clothes, most of all I loved her attitude. Plagued for most of her professional life about living “in the shadow” of her lover, Humphrey Bogart, she responded with the supreme confidence of a woman who doesn’t feel she has to compete. “Who better,” she would drawl, “to be in the shadow of?”

She was no less fabulous in her rejection of plastic surgery. “I think your whole life shows in your face,” she said. “And you should be proud of that. Why would I want to look like someone from another generation?”

It helped, I don’t doubt, that she had the world’s best bone structure, but beyond jealousy of this plain fact, I don’t quite see why her comments have provoked such defensiveness in the current generation of surgically enhanced stars. Le tout Hollywood has lined up to pout, through industrial quantities of silicone (try putting your lips together and blowing with that lot), that an actress in today’s market simply has to protect the capital of her youthful good looks and that Bacall was to be deplored for “shaming” the sisterhood.

They miss Bacall’s point. She didn’t run after youth. She didn’t run after anything. She made the running. Which is the pretty much the only capital worth keeping.