ST. PAUL -- With thousands of viewers watching online, a teenage St. Paul girl said she was going to kill herself.
And as she livestreamed on Facebook, the teen appeared to be trying to.
A large number of people began calling police last week, trying to get help to her. Many of them didn’t know the girl. Some did, and they offered up her name and possible places where officers could find her.
St. Paul police rushed to one residence; she didn’t live there anymore. They eventually found her at another. The teen, who said in the video that she was drinking a poisonous substance, denied to officers that she had. Paramedics took her to a hospital for evaluation.
Her name is not being used because of the sensitive nature of the incident. Efforts to reach her and her family were unsuccessful.
What should such people do in this nightmarish Internet scenario? And what should the online services that are hosting this content do?
Written posts about suicide aren’t new, but the issue is taking on greater urgency with the advent of video-streaming services like Facebook Live and Twitter Periscope that can be used to stage a suicide or other harrowing live event for all the world to watch.
There were more than 18,000 people watching the St. Paul girl’s livestream, said St. Paul Police Sgt. Mike Ernster. While it appears dozens called police, that was “not as much as you would hope,” the department spokesman said.
“It’s a tough situation,” he added. “Some people see these things and they don’t know where people live or how to get in contact with the local authorities to find this person. It’s such a private incident happening in such a public realm, but it’s a challenge of the new social media world.”
In May, a 19-year-old French woman used Periscope to broadcast the hours leading up to her suicide, as well as the event itself. In truncated YouTube archives of the video, the feed is eventually cut by a frowning man who looks like an emergency worker. In comments, viewers wondered why the stream wasn’t ended sooner.
This is a big problem for the likes of Periscope and Facebook that still largely depend on users to bring such troubling content to its attention when it appears.
Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) in Bloomington, was among a small group of experts who worked with Facebook to update the resources it provides to people who may be having suicidal thoughts, as well as to concerned friends and relatives. Facebook rolled them out in June.
With Facebook’s tools, a user can reach out directly to someone who seems troubled, contact a helpline, or report this situation to the social network - all with a few clicks.
“We have teams working around the world - 24/7 - who review reports that come in,” Facebook said in a post in June.
Facebook says people should call local emergency services immediately if they know someone is in crisis.
That’s what happened in St. Paul last week. A teen started a Facebook livestream late one night. She looked distraught and spoke into the camera: “I’m done, I’m done, I’m done, I’m done!”
She began drinking a liquid after about 20 minutes of her 90-minute livestream.
At various times, she appeared to be reading aloud comments that people were leaving on her post. Some seemed to egg her on and questioned what she really drank.
Take threats seriously
People who see others talking about suicide “should always take it seriously, because too often people don’t and they end up going to a funeral,” Reidenberg said.
Others comments that the teen read were supportive and sympathetic. At one point, she gave out her phone number and the calls began pouring into her, with people urging the girl to stop hurting herself. A St. Paul police commander, who is the head of the department’s crisis negotiation team, tried to call, but could not get through, according to a police spokesman.
The Ramsey County Emergency Communications Center received 215 calls to 911 and the non-emergency number during the teen’s livestream nearly triple the normal call load for that time, said Nancie Pass, the center’s deputy director. She didn’t know exactly how many involved the teen, but it appears the majority did.
“Obviously, people did reach out to intervene,” Reidenberg said. “The community gathered together and responded immediately. That is the essence of suicide prevention.”
Seeking way to monitor
Facebook says it can’t actively monitor every post and live video because there are millions of them every day. Staffers, however, will often zero in on streams that rack up the most views - a stream of a potential suicides in progress will often be a big draw.
Several companies are developing software that can intelligently watch and search for content on live-stream services.
David Luan, co-founder of the New York-based startup Dextro, said the challenge lies in creating software that can interpret not just still images but moving images, audio and other “signifiers” that demonstrate what is happening in the video.
“It’s like trying to recreate a human’s experience of watching these videos,” Luan said.
While Reidenberg said he has seen a slight increase in people using social media over the last decade to make threats about self harm, “most of the time suicide is a very private thing and people don’t go public with it.”
In the event that someone does post about it on social media, “there’s at least a potential opportunity for the community to intervene and get someone the help they need,” Reidenberg said.
Facebook offers suicide-related resources, such as:
- A page for reporting suicidal content: bitly.com/2auxd4s
- A suicide-prevention page with answers to pressing questions: bitly.com/2auwYGj
- A resource-laden page for those who are worried about someone after seeing content they’ve shared about suicide or self-injury: bitly.com/2aux8Oa
- A regularly updated Facebook Safety page that covers a broad range of subjects, including suicide, bullying and cyber-security: bitly.com/2auxd4f
This report contains material from the Washington Post.