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TV coverage linked to teen suicides.

TV coverage linked to teen suicides

Teenage suicides have received much attention on television in the past few years. Two teams of researchers now report that the tube may play an active role in these tragedies. Television news coverage and fictional movies about suicide, they say, appear to trigger a temporary increase in the number of teenagers who kill themselves.

While "imitation suicides" are widely assumed to take place, as in recent instances of clustered teenage suicides in several suburban communities, some researchers say the new studies do not yet establish a clear statistical link between television and the adolescent suicide rate.

The investigators involved in the projects, however, see important implications in the data, which were published in the Sept. 11 NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE. "[Our results] indicate that the national rate of suicide among teenagers rises significantly just after television news or feature stories about suicide," write sociologists David P. Phillips and Lundie L. Carstensen of the University of California at San Diego. This increase, they add, is proportional to the amount of network coverage.

The researchers examined suicide rates in the seven days following 38 stories or pairs of stories that appeared on the three networks between 1973 and 1979. The stories were a mixed bag, including pieces on the suicides of television actor Freddie Prinze, an unnamed teenage girl and a man who had murdered several people; features included programs on "suicide and teenagers" and "suicide and prison."

On average, in the seven days following a single suicide story, there were about three more suicides than would normally be expected. The total of 1,666 suicides following the 38 stories was 110 suicides greater than would otherwise have been expected. Suicides among teenage girls during the week-long "danger period" rose by 13 percent, in contrast to a 5 percent increase among teenage boys.

If the shows had mainly quickened the pace of suicides among teenagers who were already about to kill themselves, say the researchers, suicide rates would have dropped steeply after the observation period, but they did not. Seasonal variations in suicide, they add, were corrected for in the results.

In the second study, Madelyn S. Gould and David Shaffer of Columbia University in New York City followed suicide rates in the greater New York area two weeks before and after four made-for-television movies on suicide, in 1984 and 1985. An excess of six suicides, compared with the number predicted, occurred after three of the broadcasts. Projected nationwide, this corresponds to about 80 extra suicides linked to the movies among 10- to 19-year-olds.

The one movie not linked to an increase, says Gould, focused on reactions of surviving family members and included educational information about preventing suicide.

In an accompanying editorial, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Leon Eisenberg says the studies indicate that "it is timely to ask whether there are measures that should be undertaken to limit media coverage of suicide." He notes, though, that suicide rates are importantly affected by individual risk factors, such as depression, alcohol and drug addiction and social withdrawal, and by other triggering events, including unwanted pregnancy, family crisis and loss of or rejection by an important person.

"I'm prepared to believe that cases of imitative suicide occur after television programs," comments Stanford University sociologist James N. Baron, "but it's difficult to establish that link statistically." For instance, he points out that the two new studies are unable to identify whether the teenagers who killed themselves actually saw the television shows in question. Other studies, says Baron, find varying effects of media coverage on subsequent suicide rates.

It is curious, adds sociologist Steven Stck of Auburn (Ala.) University, that the television programs in the San Diego researchers' study contain few instances of teenage suicide. psychological studies, he says, indicate that people imitate the actions of others most similar to themselves. The effects of programs about teenage suicides may need to be studied separately, holds Stack, and compared with the impact of other types of suicide coverage, such as that focusing on the elderly or on celebrities.
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Sep 20, 1986
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