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Facebook Hires Health Expert to Help Prevent Suicides

Kiley Roache

(Bloomberg) -- Facebook Inc. said it will begin sharing public data about how users talk about suicide as part of ongoing efforts to address concerns about suicide and self-harm on the social media site.

In a blog post on World Suicide Day, Facebook said it will give academic researchers access to CrowdTangle, a tool often used by news and media organizations to monitor social media, to explore how information shared on Facebook and Instagram can be used to help prevent suicide. The company will also include guidelines for talking about mental health by Orygen, an organization that studies youth mental health, on the platform’s Safety Center and hire a health expert to join its safety team.

The moves grew out of consultations Facebook has been having since earlier this year with experts to discuss some of the more difficult topics related to suicide and self-harm. Facebook has also tightened its policies to no longer allow images of graphic cutting and making it harder to search for this type of content on its apps.

Facebook uses software algorithms to find posts related to self-harm, an approach it also employs for other types of sensitive content like posts promoting terrorism or child pornogrophy. Facebook says it removed or added a sensitivity screen to more than 1.5 million pieces of suicide or self-injury related content between April and June, and said it found 95% of those posts before they were flagged by another user. It did the same for over 800,000 pieces of content on Instagram.

Facebook will sometimes send resources to individuals who created the posts or, in cases of imminent danger, alerts local authorities.

Governments and academics have raised red flags about rising rates of suicides among teens that appear to correspond to the increasing popularity of social media. A study published by the JAMA Open Network in May didn’t cite a specific cause for an increase in suicides since 2007, but other researchers who looked at the data questioned the role of social media in the spike of incidents. In April, the U.K. asked Facebook, along with Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Snap Inc., to commit to dealing with the issue.

“Experts have told us that one of the most effective ways to prevent suicide is for people to hear from friends and family who care about them,” Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, wrote on the blog. “Facebook has a unique role in facilitating those kinds of connections and we’re taking additional steps to support those who are discussing these sensitive topics, especially young people.”

(Updates to include statistics about the number of suicide-related posts Facebook took action on.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Kiley Roache in New York at kroache@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jillian Ward at jward56@bloomberg.net, Molly Schuetz, Robin Ajello

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