Mon, Aug 21, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Feature: Teen suicide texting alarms the Netherlands


Macabre text messages among a group of a dozen Dutch girls egging each other on to commit suicide has provided a new twist to the well-documented dangers of modern, instant-communication technology for the young.

The revelation by a local newspaper that the group of 12- to 15- year-olds had been texting each other on their phones and computers for months earlier this year has provoked a flood of soul-searching in the Netherlands, a country that is by now inured to reports of Internet sexual grooming and blackmail.

The police were alerted and a team of social workers has been working with the girls, one of whom has been admitted to a psychiatric clinic.

The bizarre network grew up following the suicide last March of a girl at a school in Enschede, a city in the northeastern province of Overijssel on the German border.

Four of her friends had "driven each other completely crazy," school psychologist Frank Rijnders told the Tubantia newspaper, which agreed not to go to press with the tale until the summer holidays were well underway.

"Who dares to?" was a repeated text message.

Staff at the school -- the Stedelijke Lyceum -- spoke of a "suicide virus" which they feared would spread to others once the news broke.

One 14-year-old girl told the national press she had joined in believing it was a joke.

"OK, then I will too," she responded, saying she had done so "for kicks."

When asked when and how she planned to kill herself, the girl broke off the conversation that day but, fascinated, returned to the chat group the next day.

"I realized that many of the girls had problems at home, but I didn't. It got really scary, so that I told my parents, who told the school," the 14-year-old said.

Hermann van Engeland, who lectures in child psychiatry at Utrecht University's medical center, says suicide and talking about it somehow raise status among the young.

"We don't know why," he says, but he thinks it is much like a game of dare.

Several commentators have pointed to an 18th-century parallel, when the publication of German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, whose hero commits suicide, led to a string of youthful suicides.

The Internet has replaced the romantic novel and the lovelorn letter, and as a Dutch foundation that works with those at risk of suicide has noted, it also provides information on how to commit suicide.

Erik Jan de Wilde, who heads the youth research department of the Social Health Service in Rotterdam, says it is well documented that "one suicide increases the risk of another" within a secondary school.

Schools run specific programs to demystify suicide and to counter the romantic aura that surrounds it for some youngsters.

But he echoes the 14-year-old who brought the messages to light.

"It is never girls that are otherwise happy within themselves. There is always something else going on -- feelings of helplessness, hopelessness," he said.

"The bucket is full and then something apparently trivial -- a fight, a boyfriend who ends a relationship -- can be the last drop," De Wilde said.

The experts agree the problem is not new. Adolescents have always been prone to strong feelings and to radical action, but modern technology allows a situation to get out of hand more quickly.

There is no measured sealing of an envelope and long walk to the post box, during which the writer might have time to reflect.

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