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Can a Facebook tragedy offer a friendship lesson?

Published: January 9, 2011 | Last Updated: April 16, 2016 By | 6 Replies Continue Reading

How to avert a Facebook Tragedy: What would you do if you saw a disturbing status post from a friend on your feed?

“Took all my pills be dead soon bye bye everyone.”

Simone Back, 42, of Brighton, UK, updated her status with that disturbing message at 10:53PM on Christmas Day 2010. On January 6th, The Daily Mail reported the story of Back’s suicide. The charity worker had a history of depression. The paper spoke to her mother, Jennifer Langridge, who pointed out that her daughter had 1082 Facebook friends but not one of them responded to her cry for help in-person or contacted her mother.

Back’s last status update was, in fact, seen by a number of her Facebook friends. Some responded with nasty comments but no one took her threat seriously enough, cared enough, felt comfortable intervening, or knew what to do. According to the Daily Mail report, “Facebook friends from out of town begged online for her address and telephone number so they could get help, none of those who lived closer did anything to help.”

The bystander effect

In 1964, forty years before Facebook existed, a 29-year-old woman named Kitty Genovese of Kew Gardens, New York was returning home in the early morning hours from her job as a bar manager. She cried out for help from her sleeping neighbors when an assailant stabbed her twice in the back. “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!” she screamed.

Before Genovese stumbled to her apartment building, her assailant raped and stabbed her several times more and robbed her of $49. This all took place over the course of an hour. One eyewitness eventually called the police but Kitty Genovese died en route to a hospital.

News reports afterwards suggested that 38 neighbors heard or saw some of what happened that night. This led to public outcries over their callousness. Later, it was estimated that actually about a dozen people had sensed something was wrong and failed to act, attributing the disturbance to a lover’s spat or drunken brawl.

Social psychology courses often use the Kitty Genovese case as an example of the “bystander effect,” a construct that explains the phenomenon of people not responding to a victim—usually because they feel someone else will do so or they think that someone is better equipped to respond than they are.

Perhaps that’s similar to what occurred in the case of Back’s suicide threat on Facebook. In many instances, Facebook friends feel more distant than real friends, not knowing exactly how to respond to someone in distress because they really don’t know the individual that well or aren’t sure about their role.

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Admittedly, a suspicion may be wrong and determining whether and how to respond can be a tough call. Some Facebook friendships are very distant acquaintances, at best. But when we live in the same virtual community, we are neighbors. When you have any suspicion that someone’s health or safety may be compromised, it’s always better to say something than regret doing nothing.


  • An article in the Chicago Tribune provides instructions about how to handle a threat of harm or suicide on Facebook. It states: “Report the content just as you would any other content by clicking on the arrow in the upper-right-hand corner of the post. Choose “I think it shouldn’t be on Facebook’ followed by ‘It’s hurtful, threatening or suicidal’ and then ‘I think they might hurt themselves.’ At this point, you’ll see a ‘What You Can Do screen which offers steps you can take to help the person and then an option to have Facebook review the post.
  • A free 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) is available to people in crisis (or their loved ones) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Calls are routed to local crisis centers.
  • In the UK or Ireland, Samaritans offers confidential support at 08457 90 90 90.
  • If you feel someone poses a serious threat to themselves or others, you may also opt to contact local law enforcement officials.

The day after the tragic shootings in Tucson, this issue of responsibility for our friends and neighbors has to weigh on our minds even heavier than usual. If a friend, acquaintance, relative or neighbor had noticed the writings on Jared Lee Loughner’s MySpace page or his videos on YouTube and called them to someone’s attention, might this horrible tragedy have been averted?

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Comments (6)

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  1. Concerned!! says:

    When peoples Will Learn To Take Suicide More Seriously Only Then Will Most Get The point That it’s Not A “JOKE”. Facebook Is A Joke Because Those ppls Are Not Your True Friends, They Will Never Care About U Nor Your Situation. I Do Get Involved When I Read Something That Don’t Sound Right. Some peoples Can Sound Depressed, So Me Knowing The Signs Because I Suffers From it, I Always Try To Say Something Encouraging ‘N Uplifting. Around The Holidays Depression ‘N Suicide Rises “HIGH” Only Those Who Suffers From It Knows That Truth. Peoples Needs To Get More Involved ‘N School yourself If U Don’t Understand What “DEPRESSION” Is Or What Do That Mean. Because Millions Of PPlS Have This Illness And Millions Will Unfortunately Suffer [ALONE]. Thanks America For Not CAREING, yet The Few Who Do CARE THANK U!!!!

    • Midnite says:

      I know what you mean. I’m just like you. I understand and feel for them, because they are me. No one takes me seriously too. I’m just getting everything in order first. No one will know. Sorry, just wanted to say something.

      • Teri says:

        Midnite, maybe the people closest to you don’t seem to care and maybe they really do and just have so many problems of their own that life seems overwhelming but there are always people who do care. Life can be really tough for all of us at times but there are services you can reach out to. There is a number above, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and I hope you will use it rather than getting your things in order. I “died” in a car wreck once and had many regrets. I begged for a chance to come back and chance things about my life that I was so unhappy about. I think that is how you might feel if you end your life. I hope you will visit my Peace Of Success channel on YouTube and think about some of the things I talk about. You will take your problems with you and now you have a chance to get help and change things. It’s not easy but it can be done. If I did it, I think anyone can. I care and many others do too.

  2. Yolanda Michelle Martin says:

    This has long been an issue of concern to me, particularly when I learned the statistics of suicide, that in many instances it claims more lives than homicide. I have seen crisis posts by some of my friends on Facebook, and I have taken a position of responding to them with encouraging words, regardless of who the person is, where they are, or what level of friend they are to me. Indifference kills, proveably more than violence, and I feel that it is the duty of everyone as human beings to reach out to other people in crisis, if with no more than listening ears and kind words, which have the power to save.

    • Teri Rose says:

      No truer words were ever spoken Yolanda. I often wonder how quickly everything could change if we all become more aware of what others are really feeling and then offer something as simple as words of encouragement or a smile to acknowledge their presence and importance. One small act of kindness can turn a situation around or save a life. We would have to spend more time paying attention and being present instead of on cell phones or the internet and those are tough habits to break but everyone’s life would improve. I love your comments and hearing how you react. That’s encouraging. Thanks.

      And thanks Irene for the great article!

  3. Sophie says:

    Fabulous post, Irene and so important. Thank you.

    A couple of years ago, while my husband and I were out of town, a friend of his here in town posted the word “suicide” as his FB status line. My husband immediately got on the phone and e-mail and tried to reach the friend, then every mutual friend they have, as well as the friend’s landlord. When that didn’t work out (people were out of town, couldn’t be reached, that kind of thing), he called the police, who checked it out. The friend was fine, if hungover (he’d posted in a gloomy drunken fog), but I am VERY proud of my husband’s rapid, determined, and caring response. And if it something similar happened again, we both would respond the same way. Perhaps because we have both experienced death by suicide in our personal circles, we know never to assume a threat is idle. That’s Suicide 101.

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