The other day, in my continued research on social media, I was reading an article that appeared nine years ago in The American Journal of Public Health. I congratulate the authors — David Luxton, Jennifer June, and Jonathan Fairfall — because their observations remain relevant.
Let me briefly review some of their points, and why they are important, and my own observations.
First, the number of suicides in the U.S. (now) averages over 120 per day. While every life is important, many of these suicides are teenagers, active duty members of our armed forces, or veterans.
Second, the Web facilitates suicides with searches for “suicide methods” and “how to kill yourself.” Many sites and even chatrooms are pro-suicide; “extreme communities” online promote destructive behaviors, from anorexia to suicide. Cyber-bullying, when correlated to suicide, is termed “cyberbullicide.” Similarly, a suicide pact via the Internet is a “cybersuicide” pact. Video-sharing can normalize suicide. And unregulated online pharmacies outside the U.S. provide drugs for overdoses.
Third, social network sites have tried to enable reports of cyber bullying as well as postings that harass or threaten. The Department of Veterans Affairs for years has produced videos, along with YouTube, to reduce or prevent suicides. And various groups use their web sites and social media to discourage suicide and reach out to those who might take their life. The U.S. military has used social media for suicide awareness and prevention.
Fourth, these three authors point out the obvious, that social media “has created virtual communities without physical borders” that “pose a risk to vulnerable groups.”
Fifth, we have conflicts — privacy, First Amendment rights, for example. We are not about to morph into an authoritarian regime to stop suicides.
I have thought about the impact of social media for years, and how we can use social media, even only the public social media, in a positive way.
Consider that many users of social media offer hints of their mental state. This is often the case with teens, especially victims of cyber-bullyig, and members of the armed forces and veterans, especially PTSD sufferers. Through an innovative platform that I developed, we now have the ability to enable school districts, or the military, or the veterans department, to track public social media to look for those (we call them “person of interest”) who may be a danger, through suicide, to themselves, and perhaps even a danger to others.
Imagine that we now can use artificial intelligence and machine learning to watch for signs that might yield alerts, a way of flagging and prioritizing people who need help, perhaps even imminently. We’re talking about monitoring public social media and providing alerts in real time. Responsible authorities with access to other information about a student, armed forces member or veteran can make a decision about outreach, counseling, intervention, or even defining an emergency situation requiring first responders.