Do search engines encourage suicide?

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Do search engines encourage suicide?

A study of the Internet has found that Web engine results for suicide-related searches are more likely to encourage suicide rather than offer help and support.

Following U.K. media reports about the existence and possible influence of Web sites and forums that may encourage suicide in young people, the study aimed to investigate the pervasion of pro-suicide Web sites and the ease with which such sites may be found.

Researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Oxford and Manchester set out to replicate an online search that might be undertaken by a person looking for information about suicide methods.

Using four top search engines, Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask, the researchers analysed the first ten sites from each search of 12 suicide-related search terms. Of the 480 total hits that were analysed, 240 different Web sites were found.

The top four most frequently occurring sites evaluated methods of suicide including detailed information about speed, certainty, and the likely amount of pain associated with each method. The three most frequently occurring sites were found to encourage suicide, with user-generated encyclopaedia, Wikipedia coming in fourth.

Just under half of the sites found provided information about methods of suicide. Almost a fifth of hits were for dedicated suicide sites, of which almost all provided information about methods of suicide, and half were judged to be encouraging, promoting, or facilitating suicide.

A mere 13 percent of the sites found, focussed on suicide prevention or offered support, of which a majority actively discouraged suicide. Even so, the researchers found that a fifth of support and prevention sites also provided information about suicide methods.

Google and Yahoo were found to produce the highest number of dedicated suicide sites, whereas MSN had the highest number of prevention or support sites and academic or policy sites.

According to 2005 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, suicides account for about a fifth of deaths between the ages of 20 to 35.

Authors of the study, which was published this week in the British Medical Journal, encourage the use of Web site optimisation strategies to maximise the likelihood that suicide prevention sites are preferentially sourced by people seeking information about suicide methods.

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