Several research and nonprofit groups are analyzing the connection between social media and mental health with the aim of detecting and predicting depression, anxiety, and in particular, the risk of suicide. Early research shows that it’s possible to determine one’s state of mental health by analyzing word choice, length of text, frequency of posting and other indicators found in social media posts. But while using social media for the benefit of society is appealing, rather than simply as a vehicle for relaying personal news and selling things, a great deal of caution is being expressed. Stereotyping is a risk, along with opening the door for employers and insurance companies to use social media for detecting the mental health of applicants without an in-depth analysis. Invasion of privacy is also a pressing issue.
Take, for instance, the recent case of an app created and distributed by The Samaritans, a well-known suicide prevention group in Britain. The free app was designed to alert users whenever someone posted a worrisome tweet like “I hate myself,” or “I’m done.” The app, known as Samaritan Radar, was picked up by 4,000 people within a week of its introduction on the Samaritan website, and those users were following nearly 2 million Twitter accounts. Within the same week, Samaritan faced a challenge from the public, who pointed out the app’s weaknesses. Some mentioned that Samaritan Radar could be putting the emotionally vulnerable in the spotlight and opening the door to interventions that are unnecessary or perhaps even harmful. Many were alarmed that interventions might be started without accurate, professional diagnoses. Shortly, the app was pulled and Samaritan announced that it was reconsidering the app’s viability.
The World Health Organization reports that about 800,000 people die each year from suicide, and it’s important to do research on the connections between social media and mental health that can help identify at-risk individuals. But social media is a brand new source for scientific data, and as we make our way through its unique features and complexities, we need to be careful that we are providing a helpful resource and not a disservice.
As technology grows, there are more concerns about how it is used and how that affects an individual’s life. However, in the right hands, technology has the potential to help create positive, life-long changes for individuals.