The Canadian Psychiatric Society, among others, publishes guidelines for reporting on youth suicide. Don’t put the word “suicide” in the headline, it says. Don’t give such stories undue prominence. Don’t describe the method. Don’t glorify the victim.
The guidelines are designed to reduce the very real risk of copycats.
We know many media outlets violated those guidelines while reporting Rehtaeh Parsons’ suicide.
We can’t know — yet — whether that will lead more young people to kill themselves. But we also can’t know whether the avalanche of publicity about this horrific incident will encourage as many or more parents to ask their kids the right questions before it’s too late, or give some troubled kids the courage to seek the help they need.
What we do know is that publicity about her case has triggered a much-needed public debate about youth sexual assault, cyber-bullying and teen suicide.
I, for one, worry about the mob mentality unleashed by publicity about Rehtaeh Parsons’ suicide. Too many people have been too quick to leap to conclusions based on too little real evidence. Too many people have been too willing to assume they know all they need to know to become judge, jury and executioner — of the justice system, of the school system, of the boys allegedly responsible.
And yet, I also have to acknowledge that same social media mobilization not only forced the reopening of the criminal investigation of Rehtaeh’s alleged sexual assault but has also sparked a broader review of how the system worked, or didn’t, and has even led to proposals for new laws, including how to deal with distributing intimate photos without permission.
Ask Adam Barnes. The 19-year-old Cole Harbour youth was among those “outed” as one of Rehtaeh Parsons attackers. Vigilantes distributed his photo online. Though he says he wasn’t even at the party where the assault allegedly occurred, Barnes now fears for his life. “I always have to worry about who recognizes me,” he told CBC News last week. “I always have to look out behind my back.”
In our rush to end online bullying and win justice for Rehtaeh, will we become the new bullies?
It is complicated.