Are TikTok algorithms changing how people talk about suicide?

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Kayla Williams never said the word “suicide” on TikTok, although she uses the platform to discuss mental health issues with her 80,000 followers. Since the start of the pandemic, a 26-year-old student from Berkshire, England, has posted multiple videos about suicidal thoughts and being in a psychiatric hospital. Some of these clips are light-hearted, others are much more serious. However, Williams does not say the word “suicide” in front of her front-facing camera or print it in her captions for fear that the TikTok algorithm will censor or remove her content. Instead, she uses the word “inanimate”.

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The #unalivemeplease hashtag has reached 9.2 million views on TikTok; #unliving – 6.6 million; #unaliveawareness has 2.2 million more. Although the #suicideprevention tag is often used on the app, the hashtags #suicide and #suicideawareness do not exist – if you search for them, TikTok displays the number of the local crisis helpline. This is a policy of good intentions, begun in September 2021one year after the suicide graphic video spread across the application. But users have also become wary of elusive content moderation filters that seemingly suppress or remove videos that discuss death, suicide, or self-harm.

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Although the word “non-living” first became popular in 2013 (when it used in episode from Ultimate Spider-Man), Google search for this term rose sharply in 2022. From TikTok, “unalive” spread to Twitter and Reddit; Youtubers also use it, so their content is not demonetized. Depending on the context, the word can refer to suicide, murder, or death. While “non-live” is often used for comedic purposes on TikTok, people like Williams also use it to speak candidly, build community, and point resources on the app. Thus, the rapid spread of the “non-living” raises a disturbing question: what happens when we do not openly say “suicide”?

“I think such a serious topic turns into a joke,” Williams says of the term. While she likes to say “still” when she intentionally wants to make the video “less heavy”, she adds, “It doesn’t suit me because we need to be able to talk about heavy stuff without being censored.”

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Williams fears that the word “non-living” could reinforce the stigma around suicide. “I think while the word is great at helping TikTok keep videos from being taken down, it means that the word ‘suicide’ is still considered taboo and a tough topic to talk about,” she says. She also changes other mental health terminology so her videos aren’t automatically tagged for viewing: “eating disorder” becomes “ED”, “self-harm” becomes “SH”, “depression” becomes “d3pression”. (Other site users use tags like #SewerSlidel and #selfh_rm).

Prianka Padmanathan, Academician of Clinical Psychiatry, University of Bristol; in 2019 she conducted a study language use and suicide, interviewing just under 3,000 people affected by suicide. Padmanathan asked participants to rate the acceptability of topic descriptors and found that “attempted suicide”, “committed suicide”, “died by suicide”, and “committed suicide” were considered the most appropriate phrases for discussing non-fatal and fatal suicidal behavior.

A number of those interviewed expressed concern about the total abandonment of the word “suicide”. One participant said it was “dangerous” and “isolated” to avoid the word, while another said, “My brother committed suicide and my sister tried to commit suicide. I don’t think we should be afraid to use that word.”

“In general, respondents preferred terms that were perceived as fact-based, clear, descriptive, widely used, unemotional, non-stigmatizing, respectful, and affirmative,” Padmanathan says. Further research is needed to determine whether the word “non-living” has the potential to stigmatize, but she notes that words can and do influence how we think about suicide, citing 2018 study.

The study, led by a communications specialist at the University of Munich, provided participants with news reports of suicides that were identical except for the word used to describe the suicide itself. Some reports used the neutral German term “Suizid” (suicide), while others used the more problematic terms “Freitod” (free death) and “Selbstmord” (suicide). The study found that people were more likely to use the word they read afterwards, and that people’s attitudes about the suicides they read about differed depending on the word in the article.

Such research is critical because, as Padmanathan points out, the words we use can determine if people are asking for help for their questions. Without controlled studies, it is impossible to know what effect the “non-living” has on people accessing resources. Padmanathan says it’s unclear whether euphemisms perpetuate stigma — in her 2019 study, some participants thought euphemisms made suicide easier, while others thought they were preferable in certain contexts.

However, Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, expresses concern when asked about “non-living”. “Coming up with alternative or roundabout ways to say things instead of saying them directly sends the message that meaning is inexpressible,” says Tannen. She cites the term pro-choice: “Supposedly it means supporting the right to have an abortion, but avoiding the word ‘abortion’ helps to stigmatize it,” she says.

Tannen says that not every alternative formulation of the word “suicide” is stigmatizing – she believes that the expression “commit suicide” is clear enough to avoid stigmatization. But she often scrutinizes the “meta-message” of words—meaning that is not contained within the word itself, but can be inferred from the way the words are pronounced or from their context. “You could say that the ban on the word ‘suicide’ sends a meta-message that suicide is so terrible that it shouldn’t be mentioned,” she says.

TikTok did not respond to a request for comment, but his official blog explains: “While we do not allow content that promotes, glorifies, or normalizes suicide, self-harm, or eating disorders, we support people who want to share their experiences to raise awareness, help others who may be struggling, and find support among our community. “. It is certainly a difficult balance.

Padmanathan believes that “people have the right to talk about their own experiences in their own words,” but it’s unclear how many TikToker users use the word “lifeless” out of personal preference, and how many would abandon the word if they didn’t have the word. fear censorship. It also raises the question of where such censorship ends – while a search for “unalive” on TikTok returns countless videos, the #unalive hashtag is not indexed, which means it yields no results.

Williams appreciates TikTok as a space for conversations about mental health — she also enjoys revisiting her videos to track her recovery and see how far she’s come. “I think it’s a good platform to talk about topics like this, and a lot of people are using this platform to raise awareness,” she says. “But I also think that TikTok has restricted that by not allowing certain words to be posted.”

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