Can Facebook Predict Suicide Risks?
CREDIT: Image via Shutterstock | Mathias Rosenthal
If you've been thinking about killing yourself, your social media might give you away. An initiative called the Durkheim Project will use artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to identify common words and phrases among those who might be contemplating suicide.
The program, which launched on July 2, currently targets only veterans, who have disproportionately high suicide rates. Veterans opt into the Durkheim Project, which installs an app on computers, iOS and Android devices. These apps keep track of what users post and upload it to a medical database. A medical AI monitors the data in real-time, picking out patterns that might lead to self-harm.
The Durkheim Project app monitors content from Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, in addition to storing information from a user's mobile device. A database at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth University will keep track of users' locations and text messages, and will not share any information with third parties. Additionally, the system will be guarded by a firewall to ward off would-be hackers.
"The study we've begun with our research partners will build a rich knowledge base that eventually could enable timely interventions by mental health professionals," said Chris Poulin, principal investigator on the project, in a statement. "Facebook's capability for outreach is unparalleled."
This project has a dark side, however: While future versions of the app may notify professionals if an individual appears to be at risk for harmful behavior, its current version is completely noninterventional. Since veterans commit suicide far more often than the general populace, the Durkheim Project may gain some of its most valuable data by tracking active social media users who go on to kill themselves. [See also: That's an Order! 10 Facebook Privacy Tips from the Marines]
That said, the research rests on solid ground. Poulin and a team of investigators ran the program's first phase in 2011, which examined social media from veterans who were active online. The findings were telling: more than 65 percent of users who went on to commit suicide employed key words or phrases on a regular basis on their social media accounts.
The Durkheim Project may not achieve its long-term goal: The program requires users to opt-in, and those who feel suicidal may not feel inclined to reach out for help. Additionally, the original study only tracked correlation: There's no indication that veterans who post negative statuses necessarily go on to kill themselves.
Even so, a project hoping to reduce suicide among veterans is a noble goal, and the Durkheim Project welcomes anyone who wants to help. Through cooperation among mental health professionals and technology experts, a veteran's social media page could be much more than a collection of sad statuses leading to his or her untimely death.