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Social media live videos a disturbing new platform for public suicides

This image, provided by Fox affiliate WSVN-TV, shows 14-year-old Naika Venant.

This image, provided by Fox affiliate WSVN-TV, shows 14-year-old Naika Venant.

For two hours, Naika Venant spoke about her troubles on Facebook's live streaming service before the 14-year-old girl used a headscarf to hang herself from a shower rod inside a Miami foster home.

The Jan. 22 suicide was viewed in real time by thousands watching Facebook Live -- a popular feature launched by the social network last year. Some who knew Naika begged her not to go through with it, while others -- many of them strangers -- egged her on.

Public suicides are not a new phenomenon. But mental health experts say the ability to live stream an event across social media has created an unprecedented platform for such deaths to be viewed by the masses.

"Recently somebody jumped off a building in Atlanta and it was horrible for the people who witnessed it," said Nadine Kaslow, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University.

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"There were many witnesses but there were not hundreds of thousands," Kaslow told Fox News.

"Social media just has a magnitude that’s much larger," she said. "Some of these [suicides] are going on for hours on social media.

Venant is not the first to broadcast her death on social media.

Frederick Jay Bowdy shot himself in the head in a Facebook Live video inside a car in North Hollywood, Calif., on Jan. 23, one day after Venant's suicide. The 34-year-old aspiring actor and father of six told followers watching the video that he was going to kill himself, prompting a relative to call the Los Angeles Police Department. Bowdy died before officers could reach him.

On Dec. 30, Katelyn Nicole Davis created a 42-minute live video on social media during which the 12-year-old Georgia girl said she was sexually and physically abused by a relative.

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The first half of the video shows Davis setting a rope on a tree in the front yard of her Cedartown, Ga., home.

"I'm sorry everyone," Davis says through tears. "I'm really sorry ... I don't deserve to live."

The girl's body can be seen hanging for more than 15 minutes, and the entire video still lives online -- despite attempts by police to prevent people from sharing it.

A blog post believed to be written by the girl in the days before her suicide describes abuse from a male relative, including being hit with a studded belt. She writes the man "tried to rape me."

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Such suicides are not limited to the United States but mental health professionals caution against describing them as part of a trend. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 42,773 reported suicides in the U.S. last year. There are less than 10 documented cases of live-streamed suicides worldwide.

"We don’t have a trend," said Daniel J. Reidenberg, executive director of Save.org, a national non-profit agency working to prevent suicides.

"We don’t have any significant numbers of this happening," Reidenberg told Fox News. "Live streaming hasn’t been around long enough."

Reidenberg described social media, like Facebook, as "just a different medium than we had in the past."

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"People are living their lives online. It is the way they are communicating today," he said. "People have been posting suicidal content on Facebook for a decade now. The difference is a post versus a video."

Reidenberg recently worked with Facebook to help develop features that seek to prevent individuals from taking their lives and using social media to broadcast it. In some instances, he said, suicides were prevented because of the Facebook Live feature.

"We have three known cases where someone has been saved because of Facebook Live," he said. "People saw what was happening and were able to report it through Facebook and call law enforcement."

Earlier this month, Facebook said it was updating its tools and resources to help people who may be thinking of suicide as well as provide support to concerned friends and family members.

Such efforts include integrated suicide prevention tools to help people in real time on Facebook Live -- like the ability for users to click on a global reporting feature if they fear someone might commit suicide. The social media giant also provides live chat support from crisis support organizations through its Messenger feature.

"We have teams working around the world, 24/7, who review reports that come in and prioritize the most serious reports like suicide," Facebook said in a March 1 press release. 

If a person is at risk of suicide, he or she or a family member is urged to called the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Warning signs include talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose, talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain, talking about being a burden to others, increasing the use of alcohol or drugs, acting anxious, agitated or recklessly and withdrawing or feeling isolated.

If a friend of family member fears a loved one might commit suicide, Reidenberg says the most important thing one can do is: "Ask."

"Most people are afraid to ask," he said. "We need people to understand that it’s ok to ask."

"You can reduce their level of distress if you ask them, and if they say yes, you don’t leave them alone," he said.