We don’t have enough information to say that sites like Ask.fm are driving teenagers to suicide

It’s a silly, empty, formula thing to say, I know, but I can’t begin to imagine how the families of children who kill themselves feel. I know a few people who’ve lost relatives to suicide, and just thinking about it opens a yawning, dizzying chasm of horror in the pit of my stomach. So I can entirely understand that bereaved relatives would be frantic to warn others of the dangers of Ask.fm and the other social networking sites that have been at the centre of the recent “cyberbullying” stories.

The rest of us, though, who don’t have the same horrific personal stake in the story, need to be careful that we’re not overreacting. I know it’s hard to say that it’s possible to “overreact” to the suicide of a teenager, but it is. We live in a nation of millions of people, in a world of billions. Sometimes awful things will happen, and it’s all but statistically impossible to prevent them.

What we should be asking, and what I haven’t seen being asked, is whether teenagers on these social media sites are actually more likely to kill themselves than those who are not. Ask.fm, for instance, recently (and startlingly insensitively) announced that it had 70 million registered users. On the Today programme this morning it was said that there had been four recent suicides by teenagers who use the site. I actually count five, including the awful case of Daniel Perry which has been reported this morning, who was an Ask.fm user and had apparently received bullying messages, although the focus of the story is on the sexual blackmail he suffered via Skype.

Even if that figure is an underestimate and the true number is twice as high, though, 10 suicides among a population of 70 million isn’t very many. The suicide rate in the UK has hovered for the last few years around 11 per 100,000 population per year. Eleven per 100,000 works out as a little under 8,000 a year. At that rate, you would expect about 150 suicides of Ask.fm users a week, and even if online bullying had literally nothing to do with their suicides, you’d expect to find that a few of those 150 would have received bullying messages, simply by chance.

I know absolutely nothing about Ask.fm, for the record. I don’t think it’s for the granddaddish likes of me, with my grey hairs and memories of the 1990s and my uncertainty over which one Harry Styles is. It might be an awful place. I suspect it is. But kids seem to like it.

And calls to shut it down, or even force it to change its systems, are, at best, premature, and at worst wrongheaded. You can take any large population of people and you will find that some of them will have taken their own life. Then, if the population is large enough, you can look at the people who did, and you will probably find that a number of them received some sort of unpleasant message in the days before their death. But unless that population of people has a higher rate of suicide attempts than the wider society, then the chances are that we’re looking at a horrible but meaningless statistical noise. At the moment we have nowhere near enough information to suggest that Ask.fm, or any other social networking site, is driving teenagers to suicide.

• Note: I accidentally used the suicide rate of men instead of the overall rate in my third-from-last par above, which overstated the number of deaths by a significant margin. I’ve edited to fix.

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