Are social networks and suicide linked?

A team of USF researchers is in the middle of preparing a study that would examine the correlation between users of online social networks and suicide deaths. According to Illene Berson, an associate professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies, a grant proposal to help fund the project should be completed in October. With funding, the study would most likely start sometime next year.

Berson said researchers would try to determine if users who post messages about suicide on Web sites such as or are influencing similar behavior in others, a term known as the suicide contingent effect.

“We’re not saying Myspace is causing suicides,” Berson said. “We’re just trying to better understand this phenomena.”

Steve Roggenbaum, a research program coordinator in the Department of Child and Family Studies, is another USF researcher involved in the project and a co-author of the grant proposal. Roggenbaum has conducted several studies on the Gatekeeper program, a suicide prevention program, and has developed a high school suicide prevention program for several Florida schools.

Specifics of the project have not yet been outlined, but Berson said researchers would have to develop the study so that it maintains relevance through time; a task rather difficult as updates and technological advances change day to day.

She said the study would be “exploratory” and could lead to several other studies in the future.

“Unlike another area that has had an exceptional amount of research conducted, which you could develop and base a preconceived hypothesis, we’re not going in with a hypothesis because there is no prior research on the subject,” Berson said.

“We see online social networks as being on two opposite ends of the spectrum. In one way, it’s very unfortunate for people who have died or known people who’ve died by suicide. On the other, it’s a supportive tool.”

According to Berson, some of the idea for the study came out of a convention in New Zealand, where she discussed the impact of the Internet on young people with other colleagues.

“We looked at the emergence of how the Internet was used to memorialize adolescents who are deceased, to users of (a site that archives profiles of deceased Myspace members), to media coverage of suicides and the suicide contingent effect,” Berson said.

Berson has conducted several studies on how children utilize technology from adolescent use of cell phones to blogs and online chatrooms. In one study, she organized a survey for female adolescents on Seventeen magazine’s online Web site. The study focused on usage of chat rooms, information and picture sharing.

“Technology can be used in many ways to enhance a child’s learning experience and social development,” Berson said. “But there are also ways it could be detrimental for someone who is suffering from cyber bullying, online enticement or sexual victimization. We’re trying to understand how we can reap the benefits of technology to advise vulnerable people online.”

Called from Associated Press reports