Why would people watch apparent online suicide attempt?

Questions are being raised about the culture of message boards and what role they may have played in an apparent online suicide attempt by a 20-year-old University of Guelph student on Saturday night.
Reaction to an apparent suicide attempt by a University of Guelph student, which was streamed online as it happened. 2:08

Questions are being raised about internet message board culture and what role they may have played in an apparent online suicide attempt by a 20-year-old University of Guelph student on Saturday night.

The Ontario student apparently tried to kill himself by lighting his dorm room on fire as hundreds of people watched in an online chat room, school officials have confirmed. 

"Image boards like 4chan encourage a culture of one-upmanship, so it's always, do something outrageous but prove that you've done something outrageous," Aimee Morrison, an associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo, told The Morning Edition host Craig Norris on Tuesday. 

"People who are that ill are feeling pretty desperate, so their grip on rational behaviour is a little bit off," said Morrison.

The student suffered serious, non-life-threatening injuries as a result of the fire in his fourth-floor room at the Dundas Hall residence and is now in stable condition at Guelph General Hospital.

Brenda Whiteside, vice-president of student affairs at University of Guelph, says the school has been "in constant communication," with the student's mother and has been kept up to date on the student's condition.

"I'm happy to say he is stable and coming along," she said.

According to Whiteside, the Dundas Hall residence has been reopened, except for the floor where the student lived.

"We're hoping to get that floor opened today. The city police have to clear it for us, but they are in today, so hopefully they will clear it today," Whiteside said.

Culture of 'one-upmanship'

Sites akin to the one the Guelph student was using are "mostly male and mostly quite young with very few other voices in the mix, it's kind of like a perpetual sleepover party with no parental supervision," said Morisson. 

"It's truth or dare there constantly and you gain social credit in that group by performing feats of stupidity." 

In the case of the Guelph student, he announced on the message board that he intended to kill himself and then broadcast the video live. In front of an audience of 200 online users, he lit a fire in his room, turned off the lights and crawled into bed. 

"One of the ways that people demonstrate their insiderness on boards ... is by breaking social taboos. One of the greatest taboos we have is against self-harm and is against breaking that boundary of privacy," said Morrison. 

"There's an emphasis on acts that have shock value and on acts that can be recorded." 

Morrison says that the people watching the student in the chat room are not necessarily bad people, but the fact it took place online and onscreen may have contributed to a sense that what the student was doing wasn't actually happening.

"Nobody feels responsible for what's happening and there's a tinge of unreality to it. The screen makes you a spectator rather than a participant. It's difficult to imagine 200 people in this boy's residence room egging him on," she said.

"Somebody would do something, right? They would feel that it's morally wrong to sit there and watch somebody do that, but through a screen, somehow you're less personally culpable for that."

University trying to get video removed 

Whiteside said the university has been trying to get the video of the student removed from sites it is posted on.

"We've had some success. Some have been very receptive," she said.

"Sometimes it's students who are posting it on their social media sites and when we phone them, they understand completely our concerns on helping remove it."

But Whiteside notes that some websites are reluctant to remove the video. 

"But a couple of the sites, ones like Gawker those ones are tougher because there is just not the same desire to have those removed." she said.

"On those sites we are posting a message from the university," she said, "so at least people who are reading it or are seeing it are receiving a message from the university."

Whiteside is dealing with the challenges of a story that is getting global attention.

"People from around the world ... are posting comments that are not helpful, they're hurtful to individuals. That's just not consistent with the values of this university. We're a supportive and encouraging environment."