Malaysiakini Letter

When social media turns deadly

Syed Imad Alatas  |  Published:

LETTER | Some days ago, a 16-year-old teenager was found dead, believed to have jumped to her death in Kuching after she conducted an online poll to decide if she should kill herself. Practically more than two-thirds of respondents voted in the affirmative. 

Her death gripped not just Malaysia but the rest of the world, and understandably so. In what world is it right that a teen commits suicide because she was egged on by friends/strangers? 

In fact, in what world is it ok that anyone commits suicide at all? Her death ensued in a plethora of reports about how there needs to be tougher laws against cyberbullying and how there should be more support for those with suicidal thoughts. 

I am sure there have been many more teen deaths by suicide due to cyber-bullying, but that doesn’t matter now. We are taking action.

How some teens can vote in favour of a fellow teen ending his/her life is bizarre for sure. The fact that people didn’t mind her dead was depressing enough, let alone the fact that she was thinking of ending her life anyway. 

The question is whether the 69 percent is the sole reason she committed suicide. More importantly, should criminal action be taken against them? I think not.

I agree we shouldn’t take a technologically deterministic worldview and simply blame social media for all the ills in the world. That is irresponsible on our part. After all, social media was created by and is used by human beings. 

On the other hand, it doesn’t make sense to launch a moral panic against the teens who were part of that fateful Instagram poll. 

The lack of empathy is the culprit here. This empathy, if shown on the same Instagram poll, could have prevented the Sarawakian girl from jumping to her death. 

When she posted the question “Really Important, Help Me Choose D/L” on her Instagram, her fellow netizens knew what she was asking. Furthermore, the victim allegedly posted a Facebook status update in which she said: “Wanna Quit F** king Life I'm Tired”. 

The education ministry would do well to introduce a module on mental health or at least empathy towards mental health patients. Despite the countless numbers of support groups and helplines, mental health is still a stigma. For the girl to actually publicise her struggle on social media is significant.

The expression of empathy towards her poll, and by extension her, may have prevented the suicide, but what’s more important is that she would not have felt the need to resort to the virtual world if the world right in front of her was more supportive. 

According to the victim’s mother, the former was stressed that her stepfather married a Vietnamese woman in Singapore and seldom returned to their home in Kuching. 

Sarawak Welfare, Community Wellness, Women, Family and Childhood Development Minister Fatimah Abdullah noted that the negative impact of social media and fractured families were among the factors of teen stress in Malaysia. 

According to the victim’s mother, she did not show any behavioural changes prior to the suicide. 

Even if this is true, does her not showing behavioural changes mean everything is fine and dandy? No. 

Furthermore, she could have been a sufferer in silence. She was known to have a history of depression. 

Fatimah went on to note the stigma and shame of seeking counselling. This stigma exists because of a lack of empathy. Yes, it is true that every teen deals with family problems differently. Not all are pushed to end their life but the reality is there are those in that position.

The Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has advised social media to be more sensitive to suicidal posts to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. 

Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman has also come out and said that suicide needs to be studied in the context of rising suicide rates and mental health problems in teens. 

This is welcome, but of what nature will such a study comprise? For one, it shouldn’t be quantitative where surveyors simply ask those who are mentally unwell a string of close-ended questions or questions that require them to answer on a scale of ‘1’ to ‘5’. 

These studies need to be qualitative, delving into the nature of family dynamics, peer-to-peer relations, and so on and so forth. 

Suffering can’t be quantified; it can only be qualified by the one crying for help. 

So, is anyone to blame for the death of the teenager? No, but one thing is for sure: suicides like this can be prevented with the removal of stigma and the right click of a mouse.

SYED IMAD ALATAS is a member of the publications team at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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