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Oct 12, 2013 07:23 AM EDT

Twitter Can Warn About Cyber Bullying and Suicide Risk Ahead Of Phone Calls and Surveys, Study


Twitter can give clues about suicide risk, according to a study conducted by Birmingham Young University.

"Kids will spill their guts out there in cyberspace," Christophe Giraud-Carrier, a BYU computer scientist told sltrib. "We're hoping to pick up thoughts and feelings they might not share with their parents or school."

The researchers arrived at the conclusion after studying the social website for three months. They were in pursuit of tweets, keywords and phrases from all 50 states that directly or indirectly revealed risk factors and warning signs for suicide. The researchers found nearly 38,000 legitimately 'troubling tweets' from more than 28,000 unique users.

According to sltrib, they discovered phrases like 'sleeping 'a lot' lately' 'I've tried suicide before' 'always getting bullied' 'stop cutting myself' 'I'm being bullied' and 'parents fight again.'

Then the researchers distinguished the tweets by state. After further analysing the tweets, the researchers found that the state's ratio of suicidal tweets was strongly linked to the state's actual suicide rate.

For example, Alaska, which has the country's highest suicide rate, also had the top risky tweet ratio. On the other hand, Utah, with the seventh-highest suicide rate, was placed sixth in the study.

The study said that the finding is significant because it proves that Twitter can be used to alert people much ahead than phone calls and surveys.

"Suicide is preventable," Carl Hanson, a BYU health scientist and study's co-author, said in a statement. "Social media is one channel for monitoring those at risk for suicide and potentially doing something about it."

"What's so useful about this method is being able to see in real time what's going on and maybe get to people at risk a lot quicker," Hanson told sltrib. "If it is indeed possible to identify in real time suicide risk, ultimately the idea is you could intervene at some point."

The study said that the popular social network can be used 'to reach out to these at-risk individuals in the moment of need.'

"Tweets may be useful to address some of the functions that suicide hotline groups perform, but at the discretion and potential for such organizations to provide those services via Twitter," Michael Barnes, a health science professor at BYU and a study coauthor, said in the statement.

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