Suicide and the responsibility of social networks: what is the Werther effect?

Suicide and the responsibility of social networks: what is the Werther effect?

The parents of Marie, a teenage victim of school bullying, decided to file a complaint against the social network Tiktok. The opinion of Dr. Loeb, psychiatrist, on this hot topic.

TikTok responsable d’un suicide ?

Nearly 15 million French people use the social network TikTok, including a quarter of teenagers – who sometimes spend several hours a day there. A rather fun hobby on paper, but which nevertheless involves risks. Marie, a 15-year-old teenager, seems to have paid the price.

Victim of bullying at school because of her weight, the young woman published a video on the famous network in August 2021, with the aim of discussing her discomfort and telling what she endures. But instead of finding “support” on the web, TikTok’s algorithms will constantly offer him other videos on the theme of harassment. A few weeks later, she committed suicide in Cassis.

The debate around the responsibility of the Chinese social network for this tragedy has begun. Marie’s parents decided to file a complaint against TikTok for “provocation of suicide, failure to assist a person in danger and propaganda or advertising of means of killing oneself“, according to information from France info. A great first in France.

For Laure Boutron-Marmion, the lawyer for Marie’s parents interviewed by France info, TikTok plays a major role in this drama.

“TikTok obviously has its share of responsibility in taking action. The platforms, the social networks, play a role in dealing with a teenager who is already extremely psychologically fragile due to the harassment he suffers”.

Werther effect or the risk of suicidal contagion

If many specialists agree with the lawyer by highlighting the harms of algorithms – but also the risk of a “effet Werther“, corresponding to the risk of suicidal contagion after the media coverage of a case of suicide – the reality of a potential “responsibility” towards TikTok”must be nuanced“, estimates Emmanuel Taïeb, psychiatrist.

It is very complicated today to link, in an individual, a form of environmental exposure (media, social networks) to the fact of taking action. Suicide remains above all multi-factorial. Besides, to the question: did Tiktok push this teenager towards suicide? I can’t answer it for you“, he tells us.

Justice had already ruled in favor of a previous family

In the United Kingdom, a case of the same magnitude had already shaken the justice system. Molly, a 14-year-old teenager, committed suicide after (among other things) consulting her social networks. The Pinterest network had notably sent him recommendations of a depressive nature.

British justice ruled in favor of the teenager’s parents, questioning the algorithms of social networks for the first time.