Facebook Using Data to Predict and Prevent Suicide Among Users

The average user spends 50 minutes per day on Facebook’s social media platforms, which include Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger. For many people, it is the first thing we look at in the morning and the last thing we look at before we put down our phone at night.

While social media does have benefits, like helping us keep connections with people we otherwise might have a hard time staying in touch with, it could also be undermining our well-being.

According to a Psychology Today article, Facebook can leave users feeling pretty down about themselves. Users report thinking that other people have happier lives than their own, envying their friends’ success, keeping in touch with people they’d rather forget like an ex-partner, feeling jealous of their current partner, and revealing information they’d rather not share with potential employers.

Social media platforms are notorious breeding grounds for cyberbullying, especially for young people. It is easier to make harsh statements about someone from behind a screen than it is to verbalize it in person. A recent study conducted in the UK with youth between the ages of 14 to 24 used the #StatusOfMind survey to look at the effects of social media including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram. Researchers found a negative impact on sleep quality, bullying, body image, and experiencing FOMO (fear of missing out). In addition, all of the platforms, with the exception of YouTube, were associated with increases in depression and anxiety.

Research specific to college students shows similar findings. In a 2013 study that followed a group of college-age Facebook users over a period of two weeks, Facebook usage predicted decreases in how participants felt moment-to-moment and how satisfied they were with their livesover time. In other words, the more they were on Facebook, the worse they felt. As first-year college students start to expand their social circle rapidly, it is important for administrators to be vigilant about educating students on how to take care of their mental health and look out for friends who may be experiencing problems, as these are challenges that come with the college experience.

Facebook already allows users to report content that makes them concerned about the wellbeing of a friend. Facebook recently announced that it is also rolling out a new automated suicide prevention tool that monitors user’s posts, videos, and live streams for key indicators that signal Facebook’s Community Operations team to review the content because the user might be expressing thoughts of suicide. The technology looks for patterns of suicidal thoughts and warning signs like friends asking, “Can I help?” or “Are you okay?” The specialists on the Community Operations team are trained in addressing suicide and self-harm. They will reach out to the at-risk user and offer mental health resources, like links to the Crisis Text Line and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or even contact local first-responders who can take action.

facebook notification

Image courtesy of Facebook

While Facebook has taken steps to intervene when someone needs help, health and wellness practitioners are the boots on the ground that need to reinforce that social media can have positive and negative effects on students’ health. Social media is here to stay, so we need to be aware and share with our students resources like Facebook’s ability to report concerning behavior. More importantly, we also need to share campus resources and messaging about what students should do if they are concerned about a friend’s online (or offline) behavior.