YouTubers Should Be Held To Higher Standards When Taking On Highly Sensitive Issues

Those with large platforms need to be especially aware of how and when to address such topics.

Trigger warning: This article contains sensitive material relating to depression and suicidal behaviors. If you or a loved one are in a crisis, you can reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK to speak with a skilled, trained counselor who is ready to listen to you.

By now, you may have heard the news that YouTuber Logan Paul posted a video showing the body of a man who appeared to have died by suicide in Japan's Aokigahara forest. It became infamous quickly after it was posted on Dec. 31, 2017, and the 22-year-old subsequently deleted it from his channel amidst the backlash in comments and social media. 

The video was shocking for a variety of reasons, but most glaring was that someone with over 15 million YouTube subscribers would cover such a sensitive topic so irresponsibly.  The New York Times reports there is laughter heard and exaggerated reaction shots in the video, making the event feel all the more gratuitous. Though Paul ends the video describing his behavior as a coping mechanism, saying this "is not a portrayal of how I feel about the circumstances," it's all too little too late. 

On January 1, Paul issued this apology: 

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While the damage had been done (the deleted YouTube video has since been replicated and can be found elsewhere online), Paul's misstep is a teachable moment. Anyone with a significant audience on social media should understand the importance of covering weighted topics, such as suicide, sensitivity, and in accordance with media guidelines. It might feel odd to hold people like Paul to the same standards as a news organization when it comes to this type of discussion, but given the digital landscape of today, enabling YouTubers such far-reaching influence, it is only appropriate to treat them as part of the media. 

YouTubers should know better than to post wildly inappropriate videos that aren't only disturbing, but can be damaging to the public. 

According to Save.org, when a person covers a suicide — whether it's in print, on cable news, in a vlog, or YouTube video — they have the power to influence behaviors of the general public. Consequently, suicide prevention experts warn against addressing suicide in a way that may inadvertently encourage negative behaviors like contagion or "copycat" suicide. For example, the website explains, "Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death." All of which Paul did — and didn't seem to realize was wrong until his viewers, and others on social media, brought it to his attention. 

ReportingOnSuicide.com, points out that there have been over 50 research studies worldwide that show certain types of coverage "can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration, and prominence of coverage." 

YouTubers who have millions of subscribers, and post online videos that can be watched over and over again must therefore take extra care when highlighting sensitive topics, and consider whether or not they are equipped to discuss the subject at hand effectively and safely. 

While it's essential to exercise caution when discussing such topics on social media, this platform can also be a powerful educational tool. ReportingOnSuicide.com adds that, "covering suicide carefully, even briefly, can change public misperceptions and correct myths, which can encourage those who are vulnerable or at risk to seek help." 

This is so important given that the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that there are 350 million people worldwide living with depression, and Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.  Due to stigma surrounding these issues, too often people don't seek treatment when needed. 

But those like Paul have an opportunity to educate the public on these matters, and to also show that suicide is not just a mental health issue, but a public health issue as well. Treating suicide like a public health issue means "focusing on prevention approaches that impact groups or populations of people, versus treatment of individuals," according to the CDC.  It also means focusing on "preventing suicidal behavior before it ever occurs (primary prevention), and addressing "a broad range of risk and protective factors." For this reason, if Paul was going to cover suicide responsibly, he should have, at the very least, provided lists of warning signs and risk factors that might lead someone to have suicidal behavior and recommendations on what to do. 

When it comes to covering suicide, it's safe to say that YouTubers, such as Paul, should be treated as being part of the media, and therefore should be held to a higher standard. They must understand the consequences of reckless coverage, but also that, if done correctly, they have to power to spread positive information on the topic and effect change. 

Cover image via  Kathy Hutchins I Shutterstock

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