Facebook To Use Artificial Intelligence To Spot Suicidal Users


Tom Hale


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

Facebook Safety/Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg's all-encompassing and ever-present social media network is now employing the help of artificial intelligence to try to prevent one of the leading causes of death among the Facebook generation: Suicide. 

Facebook announced their action plan in a statement on Wednesday, a plan that includes live chat support through Facebook Messenger and a better reporting system for suicide, assisted by artificial intelligence. 


Algorithms will be “trained” to look out for keywords and patterns of behavior from the data collected from the social network's 1.8 billion active users, based on comments already flagged up as cause for concern. It will also look out for comments from friends that might indicate someone is struggling or needs help. On top of this, they will be assisted by organizations including the Crisis Text Line, the National Eating Disorder Association, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, who will be able to offer real-time advice to users through Facebook Messenger.

The move comes hot on the heels of numerous high-profile teen suicide stories that have revolved around Facebook. In January, a 14-year-old girl in Florida reportedly live-streamed her suicide through Facebook Live. That same month, they also came under fire for struggling to remove copies of a video showing a 12-year-old girl committing suicide.

The statement did not mention how they would confront these issues when it comes to videos, other than their conventional means of flagging up and reporting content. Cynics will argue all this comes at the price of privacy and intrusion. It’s also uncertain how the AI will pick up on sarcasm or dark humor. Take, for example, a comment like “I hate my life!” 

Joe Franklin, assistant professor at Florida State University’s Technology and Psychopathology Lab, told MIT Technology Review there’s very little scientific evidence that these kinds of tools are particularly effective at spotting suicidal behavior or mental health problems.


“I don’t think it’s a bad thing and I think we should study it,” he said. “But I would immediately have questions – I would not assume it would be effective.”

Nevertheless, the cause is a worthy one. Suicide is the second highest cause of death for 15 to 29-year-olds in the US. Young men in the UK, aged 20 to 49, are also more likely to die from suicide than any other cause of death. Facebook –in an unparalleled position to connect and monitor these demographics – no doubt feels a sense of responsibility and duty to help address this worrying issue.



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