Cyberbullying is widely recognized as a major issue in the United States and, when applied to teens and adolescents, is often credited as a major factor of Internet-related suicides. Although cyberbullying is the broader term applied to suicides caused by cruel comments online, the more specific term would more often than not be suicide baiting, which is exactly what it sounds like: taunting and coercing and pushing someone into suicide. In her article “Twitter Trolls and the Refusal to Be Silenced,” Myisha Cherry provides one of the most classic example of a suicide bait message – “‘kill yourself before I do’” (Cherry 222).
Suicide baiting is a disappointingly frequent occurrence and the current preventative measures that are in place aren’t doing much to actually prevent anything, mostly because they focus less on online suicide baiting and more on in-person suicide baiting. However, offline suicide baiting is happening less and less frequently in our current technological age. These prevention tactics work relatively well in relation to in-person suicide baiting, but with the allure of the Internet’s anonymity and the ease of emotional distance from the victims, suicide baiters are flocking to social media platforms in search of newer, easier prey.
Suicide baiting is often thought to be a small segment of cyberbullying, or as a specific type of cyberbullying. However, this is not the case, because suicide baiting isn’t strictly Internet-based like cyberbullying is; it can happen offline just as easily. However, suicide baiting someone in person is much harder and much more risky for the person doing the baiting, since not only is the victim usually able to tell who their tormentor is, but if they have both a face and a name, they can report the baiter to the proper authorities, making punishment much more likely.
Suicide baiting tends to be short-lived when it happens offline, because the baiter can physically see the emotional and psychological damage they’re doing to their victims and that, in turn, takes its toll on the baiters themselves. Since the Internet offers anonymity and easy, uncomplicated emotional distance, it has quickly become the more heavily used method of suicide baiting. In her article “The Art of Digital Breakup,” Lisa Bonos explores the ways that the Internet removes emotions from situations that, had they taken place offline, would have been highly personal and emotional (225).
When she describes the issue with online reactions as when they’re “more callous than nice,” which is exactly the case (Bonos 227). It’s so emotionally frigid that it’s all too easy to be cruel to strangers, which is why baiters love the Internet so much. The Internet also almost entirely removes the concept of time limits. The Internet doesn’t close and social media platforms don’t just stop working at certain times of the day, so baiters have a nearly constant access to their victims.
Time limits are becoming “artifact[s] of a paper based world,” in the words of Christopher Calabrese and Matthew Hardwood in their article on privacy rights, “Destroying the Right to Be Left Alone” (168). Suicide baiting via social media platforms also widens the baiter’s spectrum of victims to choose from. In real life, they would have been limited to the people they came into relatively close contact with on a semiregular basis, making it both harder for them to stay unnoticed and easier for the victim to deduce who the baiter was.
Online, however, the baiter has their pick of any public profile they can find, and it’s easy to get to their victim thanks to anonymous messages, chat messages and posts sent by anonymous accounts, and the ability to create more accounts to continue the harassment if one gets shut down by the platform itself. Even so, baiters often choose from a very specific demographic. Victims of online suicide baiting are often adolescents and teenagers with relatively unknown profiles or small blogs.
Online suicide baiting is also more commonly targeted toward people who identify as LGBTQ+, or even if they’re just perceived to be part of that demographic (Wiederhold 569). Also, victims are usually already plagued with mental illnesses, like depression, and use their social media accounts as places to vent. An offhanded comment about feeling a little suicidal in the tags of their post on Tumblr can open the floodgates to anonymous baiters pelting their inbox with messages along the lines of “you should have killed yourself” and “why haven’t you slit your wrists yet? and “you shouldn’t be alive in the first place; just die already. ” The ability to have multiple profiles also attracts baiters to the Internet like flies to honey.
If someone is caught suicide baiting in the real world, not only will they potentially get charged with a felony, but they’ll run a high risk of losing their ability to be in any proximity to their victim due to either a restraining order or being banned from whatever institution they originally came into contact with their victims through (S. 045 163). This is not nearly as much of a deterring factor when it comes to online baiting, though, because most social media platforms only look at email addresses, not IP addresses, when determining whether an account in the making is from the same person who ran a previously banned account, meaning that they can continue baiting their victim by merely creating another social media account under a different email.
Even though most social media platforms do have ways of reporting other users for abuse of the accounts, they are notoriously bad at actually banning users, so even this is a relatively minor concern for those who use social media to coerce people into suicide. Being caught feels further away and less like a real possibility for suicide baiters online than it does in person. This is because it’s harder to associate laws with online activities, even when it’s clear that it’s illegal. For example: downloading music off of the Internet, namely YouTube.
There are countless websites that convert YouTube videos into savable files, and not one of them is legal. Downloading the files from these sites is, technically, a form of piracy, which is illegal. Does this play a factor in the decision to download the files anyway? No. The potential viruses that the sites might provide along with the music, maybe, but not the legal consequences. But it’s practically the same thing as stealing a CD off the shelf of a store, just digitalized. So why are people far more likely to steal things from the Internet than they are from a store?
Because the consequences are much more concrete-seeming offline than they are online. It’s the same with suicide baiting. In Washington state, suicide baiting is identified as a Class C Felony (S. 5045 163). This means that, if charged with suicide baiting, someone could face up to five years in prison and ten thousand dollars in fines (Washington n. pag. ). Offline, the idea of having a felony charge permanently on one’s record would likely be a daunting prospect and deter potential baiters.
Online, however, the assumed anonymity and the impression of privacy that social media platforms give distances baiters from the plausibility of being charged with a felony crime. The lack of a solid threat of serious repercussion makes the severe moral ambiguity of suicide baiting far less obvious online, which in turn makes suicide baiting a much more frequent occurrence, to the point that it’s being ignored in most online communities. Actually, suicide baiting is being ignored in most communities, period, online or offline.
Victims of suicide baiting are often labelled as merely victims of “bullying” – or, in rarer cases, “cyberbullying” – when they’re noted by the media, if they’re mentioned at all. More often than not, suicides aren’t given any recognition in the news or by any sort of social media not run by their immediate family or close friends. And, when suicides do get public attention, it usually isn’t the helpful sort. For example, in 2010, Dylan Yount was filmed jumping off the roof of a Forever 21 building in New York.
Even though upwards of a thousand people were crowded around the building, watching, no one bothered to call the police or try to stop him (Samaha n. pag. ). Instead, they taunted and encouraged him to jump, then filmed it when he did (Samaha n. pag. ). The video was later posted to YouTube by several of the spectators (Samaha n. pag. ). This example of in-person suicide baiting was even more short-lived than most, but it was just as fatal, and the little attention it managed to draw was, unfortunately, equally short-lived.
There was blatant, videoed proof that Dylan was baited into jumping (Samaha n. pag. ). A few people actually publicly admitted to baiting him. And, yet, no one was ever charged because, in the eyes of the law, suicide baiting isn’t a high priority. Suicide baiting is like illegally downloading music from the Internet. Law enforcement has bigger fish to fry and things they consider more important to worry about.
Murders and car accidents and drug deals and celebrities dying of old age are all over the news on a regular basis, attracting all kinds of attention, but suicides are almost never featured – unless, of course, it was a celebrity who committed suicide. Even then, though, the phrase “suicide baiting” will probably never be heard broadcasted on any news channel or seen on any front-page article. A widely documented example of suicide baiting was largely ignored, and that didn’t take place in the confines of the virtual world.
Victims of online suicide baiting get even less attention than victims of in-person suicide baiting. The only results when the phrases “online suicide baiting deaths” or “online suicide baiting victims” are put into a search engine are definitions of suicide baiting and Facebook groups that are supposedly dedicated to preventing online suicide baiting. There are no names, no stories, no news articles, and no examples of people who were harassed and pushed into suicide via social media accounts. The victims are there – I know they are, because I’ve known several – but they get no recognition.
Even if there was attention brought to the countless cases of online suicide baiting, there’s a disappointingly minute chance of the baiters getting into any sort of trouble with the law. Being charged with “promoting a suicide attempt” is rare enough as it is, but because of the continuous dispute as to whether or not one’s actions online should carry the same weight as their actions offline, it’s entirely possible that there would simply be no legal punishment whatsoever for baiting someone online (S. 045 163).
Even so, suicide baiting shouldn’t be brushed under the rug nearly as much as it is just because legal action is so rarely taken. Not only is there a lack of legal acknowledgement of the severity of online suicide baiting, but there is also an acute lack of awareness among the general populace that suicide baiting even exists. Generally, the only people who have even heard the term are those who have been directly affected by it – surviving victims or the friends or family of victims.
Even in small online communities that have been affected by it, there’s a disappointingly low awareness. Suicide, suicide baiting, and cyberbullying have all become taboo topics, like rape or domestic abuse. No one talks about them, so no one knows very much about them, which is the root of the issue. The fewer people are aware of the true dangers and risk factors of suicide baiting, the easier it is to dismiss suicide baiting as a minor problem, or worse, as nothing more than an occasional happening – and the easier it is for baiters to get away with driving someone to suicide.
We need to stop treating suicide baiting like some foreign concept and start discussing it like the mature adults that most of us are. We need to start giving people the facts about it, start telling people that it exists, start spreading awareness of the issue, and peer pressure, if nothing else, might keep the baiters at bay for a little bit. Legal action will have to come eventually, because people don’t just stop being cruel because other people told them to, but I don’t see that happening realistically in the near future.
Many people underestimate the power of their voices. Myisha Cherry says that “keep[ing] our voices silent is counterproductive,” and I agree (Cherry 223). Speaking out against suicide baiters and offering protection and support to victims is the first step to hopefully making it slow down considerably. Stopping suicide baiting entirely may not be realistic, but maybe the threat of social consequences will be enough to make potential suicide baiters think twice before they said that nasty anonymous message that could very well be the breaking point for that victim.