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Monday, November 24, 2008

Teen's tragic, very public suicide

The tragedy of 19-year-old Abraham Biggs's suicide last week was compounded by the fact that hundreds of people watched as he streamed his death live on the Web. [The Hollywood, Fla., college student died after taking a combination of opiates and the drugs he'd been prescribed for his bipolar disorder, USATODAY reported.] Some viewers "expressed shock, while others laughed or encouraged Biggs to die. Some members uncovered Biggs' identity, phone number, and address, and at least one online community member called police," InformationWeek reported. By the time the police arrived, Abraham was dead. Investigators told InformationWeek that "some users told them they did not take Biggs seriously because he had threatened suicide on the site before," but they are "investigating the role of Web site moderators and discussion board members," InformationWeek adds. They have a tough job. The Montreal Gazette editorialized that online suicides can't be stopped. "Live video feeds ... have become part of modern life. Most live-streaming and video sites have policies that prohibit the webcasting of violent or disturbing content. But technically, the problem with sites such as YouTube or ... is that with millions of videos uploaded, it's just not possible for administrators to know what is being shown." But, more important, what about the human factor? USATODAY talked to Texas Christian University sociology professor Keith Whitworth, who said that the anonymity of the Internet may cause some users to behave in ways they wouldn't in person. It has a dehumanizing effect by putting distance between viewers and the person in trouble, allowing viewers to feel absolved of personal responsibility (sound like a factor in bullying?). Whitworth told USATODAY they are "'absolutely not'" absolved, but "they also cannot be held accountable." He also told the paper that "Biggs' act is similar to suicide pacts in Japan and school shootings in the USA that end with suicide: All are well planned by people seeking fame." He worries about copycat suicides amid national - and now international - news coverage (choose from 1,300+ more stories here).

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