Modern Mating

When Technology and the Sexes Collide

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Suicide and social networking

Though it reads like an episode of Law and Order, it's actually an item from yesterday's Associated Press:
"Six young Japanese were found dead from asphyxiation in a car Friday, charcoal stoves still smoking beside them - apparently the latest victims of a surge in suicide pacts arranged over the Internet"

The depressed and disaffected have found a home online. Beyond the usual applications of social networking -- like getting a date or making a friend -- there are people who are able to use those same tools as a reinforcement for thoughts and behaviors that are decidedly anti-social.

By networking with others who are similarly preoccupied with death, a dreadful group dynamic can arise. Mafumi Usui, a psychology professor at Niigata Seiryo University is quoted in the AP article as saying, "Many young people try to kill themselves but can't carry through. But when a group of strangers meet on an Internet suicide site, and someone suggests a specific way to die...that's the dangerous dynamic behind the recent group suicides."

The chatroom discussions of suicide serve to normalize and validate the feelings of the participants, which in turn makes it less difficult to carry out the actual suicide. In Japan in 2005, 91 people died in Internet-linked suicides, and the number of such suicides has increased year after year.

This phenomenon reminds me of the case of the German cannibal, Armin Meiwes. On March 10, 2001, Meiwes butchered Bernd Juergen Brandes, whom he had met on the Internet. The two traded many emails, and Brandes once wrote: "There's absolutely no way back for me, only forwards, through your teeth."

So that he could relive the event, Meiwes taped his encounter with Brandes. The video was lurid and gruesome, including footage of Meiwes disemboweling the body and talking to the severed head. However, it also included footage of the two men trying to eat Brandes' sauteed penis -- removed first, per Brandes' request. Brandes did not die until later in the day, after he had fallen unconscious from loss of blood from his wound. These details persuaded prosecutors that the killing was voluntary, and Meiwes was spared from a murder conviction.

Meiwes advertised for a man to slaughter and eat on the Internet, and he claimed to have received many volunteers. Amazingly, the case did not surface until much later. Meiwes was arrested in December 2002, a year and a half after butchering Brandes', when an Austrian student spotted one of Meiwes' ads, became alarmed, and contacted law enforcement.

Alas, it's not just men who indulge in this kind of self-destructive networking. The online, pro-anorexia movement is almost exclusively the domain of girls and women. These sites foster the distorted body-image of anorexics, and provide considerable support to those wanting to further their pursuit of an 80 pound body.

For the sane or slightly neurotic, social networking is an extraordinary tool. However, when it is used by the deranged and depressed, it can serve to validate thoughts and behaviors which are dangerous and destructive. Is there a solution to this problem? Probably not -- especially since these disordered thoughts are so anathema to the rest of us that they are kept hidden. The disturbed can be highly motivated and will find the information and the contacts they are seeking however they can. And their necessary tendency towards secrecy makes the Internet an ideal forum for this kind of sharing.

Obviously, the parents of young anorexics or of profoundly depressed children should think twice before letting their kids anywhere near an unsupervised Internet connection. But where adults are concerned, perhaps the libertarian ethos will prevail out of necessity. Namely, that we all have a right to put our head (or any other body part) in an oven.

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