Twitter is great for spoiling TV shows and criticizing Miley Cyrus' latest performance, but researchers at Brigham Young University say the social network may also be an effective way of identifying users at risk of suicide.
A study that will be released Friday says researchers at BYU studied Twitter for three months, looking for tweets that directly discussed suicide as well as keywords and phrases related to risk factors and warning signs for suicide. They found nearly 38,000 "troubling tweets" from more than 28,000 users.
The terms included phrases like "sleeping 'a lot' lately," "I've tried suicide before" and "always getting bullied."
By analyzing the tweets, the researchers found that each state's ratio of suicidal tweets strongly correlated with the state's actual suicide rate. The correlation is important because it is preliminary confirmation that Twitter can be an accurate source for identifying users who may be at risk of committing suicide, the study says.
"Suicide is preventable," Carl Hanson, a BYU health scientist and study coauthor, said in a statement. "Social media is one channel for monitoring those at risk for suicide and potentially doing something about it."
Suicide prevention organizations could use the popular social network and the real-time information that it offers "to reach out to these at-risk individuals in the moment of need," the study says.
"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 a statement.
Additionally, Twitter provides real-time data at a large scale that could be used by mental health officials to study suicide and potentially develop better prevention strategies.