A student at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, found a disturbing use for social media on Saturday: broadcasting his own suicide attempt to hundreds of viewers. Student counselors and mental health experts decried the act as exhibitionism, saying it could cause a ripple effect among students thinking about suicide.
“Tonight I will be ending my own life,” a user going by the pseudonym “Stephen” announced on the imageboard 4chan on Saturday night. “I’ve been spending the last hour making the preparations and I’m ready to go through with it.... All that I request is for you guys to link me to a site where I am able to stream it for you guys, then I will gladly fulfill my promise.”
Members of 4chan complied with his request, creating a temporary video chat room on Chateen.com that soon filled to its maximum occupancy of 200 viewers.
Since it was founded in 2003 to discuss Japanese anime and comics, 4chan has cultivated a bizarre and, more often than not, offensive subculture that has flourished under the protection of online anonymity. In particular, its “Random” section, known as /b/, regularly features gore and porn alongside the latest Internet memes. The site has a strong following among college students.
Stephen has been identified by some 4chan users, but Inside Higher Ed is not using his name out of concern for his health. He claimed to have been a regular poster on 4chan since 2004. In 4chan terms, he was an “oldfag” (a longtime user) preparing to “an hero” (take his own life). Stephen studies criminal justice and public policy at the University of Guelph, according to his Facebook profile. The profile references the same “doge” meme involving a Shiba Inu that Stephen used as a nickname during his broadcast: “LOLdoge.”
Footage from the suicide attempt is still available on the video site LiveLeak. In the video, Stephen is seen setting a fire in a corner of his dorm room in in Dundas Hall, East Residence. As smoke begins to fill the room, Stephen crawls under his bed. The frame grows steadily darker over the next 30 minutes until firefighters carrying flashlights burst into the room, locate Stephen, then carry his motionless body away.
The university has urged its students not to view or share the footage, but the story about the suicide attempt, first reported by The Daily Dot, hit dozens of websites by Monday afternoon. Student counseling professionals said the media attention could undermine the broader issue of suicide prevention among college students.
“This appears to be an unfortunate attention-seeking act, utilizing social media to gain momentary notoriety without consideration of the potential trauma to his viewers and the very real dangers to innocent others who could have been gravely harmed,” Elizabeth Gong-Guy, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, wrote in an email. “Social media can serve a powerful supportive, encouraging and compassionate function, generating hundreds or perhaps thousands of caring connections. This wasn’t an example of this positive core function.”
Others said the live broadcast goes well beyond a cry for help. Josh E. Gunn, president of the American College Counseling Association, said streaming the suicide attempt in some ways downplays its severity.
“With a lot of people who attempt suicide, there is some level of ambivalence about it,” said Gunn, director of counseling and psychological services at Kennesaw State University. “This draw to have people watch it overpowered a strong instinct in humans for life.”
Throughout the broadcast, some viewers suggested faster methods for Stephen to take his own life, such as electrocution in a bathtub. Others attempted to talk him out of it. “IM FUCK3D,” was the student's final message in the chat room.
Those following the livestream and 4chan thread propagated rumors of Stephen's death, tying it to an unrelated house fire in Pittsburgh. A Guelph press release dismissed those rumors, saying a 20-year-old student with “serious but non-life-threatening injuries” had been taken to Guelph General Hospital after a “deliberately set” fire. About 30 others students in Dundas Hall were temporarily relocated.
“The university is aware that there is disturbing social media activity circulating about this incident and is urging people not to watch or distribute this hurtful material,” the press release reads.
Gunn said the footage may cause other college students to recreate Stephen's suicide attempt or even one-up him. "We do know pretty well that there is some contagion around suicide," he said
Guelph police declined to provide any further updates, as they are still investigating the fire, a police spokesman said. Guelph General Hospital did not respond to a request for an update on the student's condition.