Websites which encourage vulnerable teenagers to kill themselves are to be blocked under plans by the Government to tackle the dozens of suicides that have been linked to internet chatrooms.
Ministers are alarmed that pages inciting young people to take their lives – and even giving advice on suicide methods – are too easily available online.
They are urging internet service providers (ISPs) to veto "harmful or distasteful" suicide sites, and to provide automatic links to such organisations as the Samaritans or ChildLine when users try to find information on suicide. ISPs already warn website managers that "offensive" material will be automatically taken down from the internet.
However, the Ministry of Justice believes more must be done. It is even examining whether the legislation controlling assisted suicide websites is strong enough.
Despite initially being linked to the social networking site Bebo, police have said that there was no internet "pact" between the 17 young people from Bridgend, north Wales, who have taken their lives since January 2007.
However, campaigners have identified 30 suicides in which the internet has played a significant role, either by providing details of how to do it or where people are encouraged by visitors to chatrooms to kill themselves.
There was even one instance of a man who filmed himself live online while taking his own life, and being spurred on by others.
The Department of Health (DoH) said there were practical problems in policing the constantly changing World Wide Web, but that the Government was determined to force ISPs to shut down irresponsible sites.
Ivan Lewis, a Health minister, said: "I share growing public concern at the impact of the internet on vulnerable people, which can lead to tragic consequences.
"Working with organisations like Samaritans and with internet service providers, we need to consider whether there is more we can do together to protect vulnerable people."
However, the department is to announce today that the number of people committing suicide has fallen to a record low in England. An average of about 4,200 people killed themselves each year between 2005 and 2007, a rate of 8.3 suicides per 100,000 people. The previous three-year average was 8.5 deaths per 100,000 of population – the equivalent of about 4,350 deaths per year.
The DoH's annual suicide-prevention strategy report also says there has been a sharp drop in the numbers of suicides of men aged 20 to 34 and a fall in self-inflicted deaths among people in contact with mental health services. But it reports that 82 prisoners took their lives past year, compared with 71 in the previous 12 months.
Although suicide rates fluctuate annually, there has been a clear downwards trend since the mid-1980s. Ministers have set a target of reducing the suicide rate by 20 per cent over 15 years to 7.3 deaths per 100,000 of population by 2009-11.
The initiatives include erecting barriers at well-known "jump points" and setting up "suicide patrols" to watch over the sites, as well as "dump campaigns" encouraging people to throw away unwanted medicines.
A source at the department said: "We are pleased that the levels of suicide are coming down but we need to be alert to the possible dangers of the internet. This concern pre-dates events at Bridgend. The work is at an early stage but we are determined to find ways of protecting people at risk."
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