October 14, 2008
Threat From the Net
By Malathy Iyer
The touch of flippancy in Babygrrl's entry is chilling. "Oh that scar looks really great, my cuts never get so deep. Hot!" says the online note in response to a red and gory picture of a slashed wrist bleeding profusely. Tabishia's entry, logged in at 12.55 am sometime in August, asks, "Tell me the most painful way to kill myself, plz. Thx."
Babygrrl's and Tabishia's spine-chilling comments are among the 100-odd responses to a blog put up by a Hyderabad-based blogger on one of the internet's most common search questions these days: how to commit suicide. The blogger had uploaded a clutch of gruesome pictures along with descriptive text in a bid perhaps to shock or discourage readers, but the subtlety seemed lost on the likes of Babygrrl and Tabishia.
Internet-assisted suicides are already a major public health concern in countries such as Japan, the UK and US. Australia and Britain are planning stringent laws; Russia is contemplating a ban on EMO, a cult whose music is said to romanticise suicide for teenagers. A chilling report in an American paper recently talked about an EMO-struck teenager breezing home one evening to announce she was committing suicide. Her parents made protesting noises as they thought she was joking. Half an hour later, they found her hanging in her bedroom.
Are these influences coming our way as well? EMO is known in India-a blog laughs at an "Indian poonu's"(girl) fascination with the cult while You Tube has entries of an "Indian EMO" breaking down after splitting with his girlfriend. A well-known search engine's e- community site, which is popular among Indians, carried a query on whether there were "painless ways of committing suicides" (the question was subsequently deleted). And outpourings like those of Babygrrl and Tabishia show that the probability of internet- assisted suicides cannot be ignored in India.
Though mental health experts here aver that there is no cause for undue panic ("Internet suicides are still not a fad in India," says Dr E Mohandas, a Cochin-based psychiatrist), the same cannot be said of "dare games". The shocking suicide of Gaurang Dalvi, a Class VIII student from the upmarket Bombay Scottish School in December 2007, is a case in point. Gaurang was found hanging in his bedroom, with initial theories pegging academic burden as the culprit. But his parents are convinced that their happy-go-lucky child had been egged on by 'friends' to establish whether it was indeed possible to "hit a high" when oxygen supply to the brain is cut off for a few seconds. His parents felt his teen gang had gleaned that claim from the internet. The incident struck home the truth that a little (mis)information on the superhighway could easily kill.
A few months after Gaurang died, Delhi teenager G N Vinay, who was preparing for the IIT entrance exams, took his life after participating in an "eternal life-after-death" discussion on a website. After his death, the forum held a discussion on whether the internet had contributed to Vinay's death, with the majority ruling that the boy should not have come online if he was a depressive. These kind of lethal dare games are almost always sourced from the Net, fears Dr Kersi Chavda, vice president of the Bombay Psychiatric Society.
A proliferation of sites on the Net provide information on suicides: a study published in the British Medical Journal a few months ago revealed that one in five sites that were surveyed were dedicated suicide sites. Over 50 per cent of these encouraged, promoted or facilitated suicide in some way or the other. Check out the entry made by Kishore X, a 'techie from Indore' who blogs at a popular portal. He writes, "I will kill myself on my 23rd birthday. That leaves November, December, Jan, Feb....April-six months." Claiming that "for the surrealist, suicide is the highest form of art," he goes on to describe how he "wants to go": drive out of Bangalore, get high on coke, "roll up the windows and light the charcoal in the brazier" and "take a few sleeping pills, just to make sure". Mental health experts are worried about how a depressed mind would interpret this prose and, worse, to what consequences.
Mumbai-based psychologist Seema Hingorrany says that many of the teenagers suffering from depression brought to her for counselling have often confessed to having surfed sites that promoted suicide. "Even if the focus is on suicide prevention, their minds are so vulnerable that they are not likely to grasp it," she says. A young girl, for instance, wanted to know if it was true that killing herself would liberate her soul.
So is every child vulnerable to the negative outcome of internet surfing? Dr Chavda says that some children are more prone than others. "Children who have a depressive tendency, those who get bullied, and those with low self-esteem are particularly vulnerable," he says. "The parents of such children would do well to monitor the child's time online by keeping the computer in a common area." That's sound advice for all parents perhaps.
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