Using Social Media to Prevent Suicide

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Suicide prevention often relies on the power of human connection. Now, that connection is moving online.

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Brian Fung

On 22 September 2010, at 8.42pm, Tyler Clementi updated his Facebook status: "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry." In the days leading up to the Rutgers University student's suicide, he had discovered his roommate, Dharun Ravi, had been spying on him through a hacked webcam connection and had been discussing his sexuality on Twitter and Facebook. Last month, a jury in New Jersey convicted Ravi of invasion of privacy and bias intimidation . He faces up to ten years in jail and possible deportation to India. The intricacies of the case have raised serious issues surrounding hate crimes, questioning the role of social media in cyber bullying.

But what about their capacity as tools for prevention?

College students and adolescents now congregate in online social networks just as much as they do in dormitory common rooms. So organizations like the National Suicide Prevention LifeLine seek to be present in these environments. The LifeLine recently developed a Facebook chat add-on that enables users to report updates to Facebook that they feel are indicative of suicidal behavior. These then trigger a connection to a trained counselor. The service functions in ostensibly the same manner as the LifeLine's telephone service, which took its first call in January of 2005.

There are two ways of accessing the chat - either by clicking on the user's post or by reporting it to the Facebook Help Center. The user is then contacted by a crisis center via email, encouraging them to either call the help line or click on a link to start an online chat with a counselor.

The service is currently completely reliant on the Facebook community to report suicidal behavior. Ashley Womble, Online Communication Manager at the LifeLine, said that it would be too tricky to create a reliable algorithm that scans posts for suicidal language because people use suicidal language in everyday conversation without any real intent to harm themselves. 

The LifeLine hasn't limited their efforts to Facebook. Twitter users are also able to report suicidal behavior on the micro-blogging platform. Reporting a tweet via the Twitter support center results in an email being sent to the LifeLine alerting them to the activity on the user's feed. Currently, Twitter does not release the email address of the user for privacy reasons, a policy the LifeLine hopes they will change their position on. The LifeLine is therefore only able to contact the user via their Twitter account. Tumblr's help center allows users to report safety concerns in a similar way. Tumblr takes these reports and emails the reported user, encouraging them to call the LifeLine.

A partnership with Google has lead to the adjustment of the Google algorithm so that the LifeLine's number appears when someone searches "suicide" or a related term. If a user types, "I want to kill myself" into the Google search bar, the top sponsored links are suicide prevention resources. Beneath them appears an image of a red telephone and the LifeLine's number. The algorithm, however, does not yet take into account all related terms. Typing "How to tie a noose," for example, does not return the number for the LifeLine, but rather results for YouTube videos demonstrating how to tie a noose.

Google bought YouTube in 2006. YouTube's community posting policy does not allow for videos containing "gratuitous violence" or "someone getting hurt" to be uploaded to the site. But it is these grey areas that present algorithmic problems for the partnership between the web companies and the prevention organizations. Google and YouTube declined to comment.

Other search engines have not yet adjusted their search functions. Bing, for example, does not return results containing the LifeLine's number. If you search for "suicide methods," the suggested terms "painless" and "undetectable" appear, showing the user results from forum threads. Some of these include threads in which users have posted questions about suicide methods that others have responded to with a list of suggestions. One site, sythe.org, contains a thread in which the user asked, "I need a painless, preferably quick and effective way to commit suicide. Don't have a gun so what can I do?" The response was to "Dive headfirst off a roof." Although this user was banned, the post remained on the message board and the link to thread was among the top sites from a search through Bing.

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