TV Coverage Linked to Teen Suicides

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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. …