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Collaborative Online Social Media Observatory contributes to potentially life-saving mobile app

31 October 2014

Young man using a touch screen phone

Research led by Professor Jonathan Scourfield has contributed to the creation of an online application designed to alert Twitter users if any of their friends show signs that they may be depressed or contemplating suicide.
The 'Samaritans Radar' app monitors Twitter activity and gives users a second chance to see potentially worrying Tweets from their friends. The Collaborative Online Social Media Observatory (COSMOS) team used a combination of text mining and machine learning techniques to empirically derive a lexicon of suicidal ideation for Twitter. This lexicon informed the development of the Samaritans Radar algorithm. Key words and phrases which indicate distress are identified and the app sends an email alert to the user with a link to the Tweet it has detected. It goes on to offer guidance on the best way of reaching out and providing support. 

Professor Scourfield says: "Social media is being used more and more as a means for people to share their feelings and, in some cases, seek support. There has been somewhat of a normalisation of suicidal language through repeated use online but it's important that those undergoing difficulties aren't dismissed. Twitter is really important in this regard because past studies have found that a correlation between suicidal statements posted online and resulting suicides does exist."

Samaritans Radar was created by digital agency Jam and is the first app of its kind. It is available to anyone who uses Twitter. 

Laura Murphy, who studied both her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies and is now Live Content Lead at Jam, says of the app: "Samaritans Radar is a safety net that will allow you to offer support to a friend at a time where they may need you most, but with the fast pace of social media, you may have missed key tweets that give an insight into how they are feeling. As well as alerting you to worrying tweets, the app also offers advice for how to approach someone who may be feeling in need of support."

Developers hope the app it will mean calls for help on social media don't go unheard. Academic experts from COSMOS, which was established with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) identified phrases that vulnerable people tend to use on social media so that a trigger warning can be sent to their friends.

Professor Scourfield has also written about the suicide prevention app for The Conversation.

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