Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Suicidal Friends Alert

Several months ago Simone Back announced on Facebook that she had taken an overdose, and even though she had over 1,000 friends, no one came to her rescue. Similarly, last year Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi announced in a status update that he intended to jump off of the George Washington bridge. Both individuals are now dead.

Instead of going to Back's home to see if she was okay, "friends" argued with each other on her wall, debating whether she actually had overdosed or if she was bluffing. A few out of towners tried to get her address, but no one local bothered. It's easy for me to say that I would have gone right over and done something. Maybe Back was the attention seeking type, so everyone ignored her message. But even so, we all have our "boy who cried wolf" moments, and at the same time we all have our breaking points.

This is largely due to the Bystander Effect, as shown in this cartoon I posted. Simply put, the bystander effect occurs when there are a large amount of people and something bad happens to a single person. The more people there are, the less likely each person is to help the person in need of assistance ( The average Facebook user has about 130 friends, plus it sounds like many people posted on Back's status, thus creating the Bystander Effect (Facebook stats).

Facebook has responded by creating a way for concerned friends to report their suicidal friends through the Help Center. The help page now has the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline as well as the number for Samaritans, a UK group.

On the business end this looks great for Facebook. While they are clearly not the cause of these suicides, they've recognized that they could have an impact on the prevention aspect, showing their flair for social responsibility. While this latest prevention effort is noteworthy and commendable, it is actually a very hard to find feature and was poorly publicized to general users. You can find the help page here. My "next step" suggestion for Facebook would be to notify all users about this new feature, since it's clearly not reached every user. How difficult is it to send an email?

Also, the feature allows you to post the link of the suicidal content, the date it was posted, the full name of the person who posted it, and any other relevant information. I'm not sure what sort of privacy laws would be involved here, but it would be smart to suggest under relevant information to suggest a location where the suicide may occur, whether it's a home address or landmark. Facebook could easily track down the same message 1,000 people saw, "Took all my pills, be dead soon, bye bye everyone," but what good would that do 911 for someone in immediate need of assistance? A suicide like hers could only have been prevented by someone who knew where she lived, whether they physically went to save her or they called authorities. If I send out a help message the police couldn't do anything unless a friend told them where I live.

Have any of your friends ever posted suicidal content on their Facebook or Twitter?

To report suicidal content, you can fill out this form.

To "like" Samaritans on Facebook, click here.

Sources: stats


  1. Interesting article! I didn't know facebook had something like that in their help center. I know when most people read status updates or hear about things they just assume someone else will help them, but if everyone thinks that way, then that's obviously a problem. It's better to be safe than sorry, even if it is just a "boy who cried wolf" moment.


  2. Cory, I completely agree. The bystander effect is what prevented Back from getting help.

  3. I think this is a smart idea by Facebook. The initiative utilizes Facebook's greatest strengths: connectivity and information. However, like you mentioned, any attempts to help would be future without location data.

    If Facebook were to somehow compile a location profile on user X by analyzing any relevant data posted by said user pertaining to their regular location and then use this profile to create a ballpark area for location, the initiative would receive some much needed help. However, there would be serious privacy concerns with such a move.

    Regardless, this is an excellent example of Corporate Social Responsibility. Facebook is utilizing it's unique resources to make a sincere attempt that benefits society.

    As to the bystander effect: I believe it's spot on. It truly seems as if there is a negative relationship between the probability of a single individual helping and the perceived number of other people around (or aware of the situation). Everyone "passes the buck" believing that "oh, someone is bound to help," but as illustrated by the Back example, sometimes no one does.

    Great blog Kelsey!