A shocking new study may give you reason to snoop.
When 13 Reasons Why debuted on Netflix last March, it sparked thousands of articles and debates about whether the show’s graphic depiction of suicide would lead to copycat attempts by vulnerable teens.
Now a new study released this week in JAMA Internal Medicine has given parents more reason to be concerned: The researchers found that in the week after the show was released, online searches for information about suicide spiked 19 percent. These included the phrases “How to commit suicide” (up 26 percent), “commit suicide” (18 percent), and “how to kill yourself” (9 percent). On the more hopeful side, searches for “suicide prevention” and “suicide hotline” also increased.
Which brings up a big question: If there’s even a small chance your kid is using the Internet as a step-by-step guide for how to hurt himself—or even just as a cry for help about depressing thoughts—shouldn’t you do everything to find out? Or does that make you a snoop?
“Your child’s safety is the overriding factor,” says Scott Steinberg, a family technology expert and author of The Modern Parent’s Guide to Facebook and Social Networks. “You shouldn’t go overboard and monitor everything they’re doing, but as a parent you should always keep an eye on their online activity. Let them know just as you wouldn’t let them go out to a party until 3 a.m. without checking up on them, occasionally you will need to know that they are okay online.”
The simplest way to see what your kid is doing is to search their browser history to see what sites they’ve been looking at, what search terms they have entered, and what books and blogs they’re reading—there are simple instructions for how to do this on almost every browser. The only hitch is that there are also easy ways to erase your history.
If you worry that your child is clearing her browser history after every search, there are other proactive steps you can take, says Steinberg. These include installing software that records everything that is entered, visited, downloaded, and viewed on the device. These programs can also take periodic snapshots of the screen or flag specific words that concern you, such as “suicide.”
But Steinberg points out that it is almost impossible to stay on top of every digital move your child makes: “Teenagers are smart, and a savvy kid can always find a work-around,” he says. In that case, Steinberg’s advice has nothing to do with technology: “You have to be alert and aware of what’s going on in their offline life,” he says. Have frequent talks, and be on the lookout for any warning signs of depression, such as social isolation, aggression, a drop in grades, a loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy, and increased anxiety.
For more information, check out the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.