Samaritans Launches Twitter App

29 October 2014, 06:00 | Updated: 30 March 2016, 13:50

The Samaritans has launched a new Twitter app that enables users to monitor the accounts of their friends for distressing messages.

Called Samaritans Radar, the new web app is activated by visiting the Radar website, and once linked to your account will then send you alerts when someone you follow on Twitter posts something deemed worrying.

This is done by Samaritans' specially created algorithm, or software, that identifies words and phrases that could suggest depression or suicidal thoughts.

Joe Ferns, executive director of policy, research and development at Samaritans, said: ''Social media has changed how we talk to each other. It has created a dis-inhibition effect that means people are being more honest online.

''We know that people struggling to cope often go online looking for support, however, there is still so much we need to learn about why this happens and how we can make the online environment safer for vulnerable people.''

Mr Ferns said that this new tool would help because rather than placing them directly in front of an organisation, friends can step in to offer help first.

''By not addressing this issue we run the risk of shutting these discussions down and driving them underground. Instead we need to use tools such as Samaritans Radar to encourage people to look out for one another online, helping them to reach out and offer support. People will go to friends first. This app and the guidance provided enables them to help.''

After activation, users will receive an alert via email when a potentially worrying tweet is spotted. Once a user has logged in, they will be able to see the tweet and confirm whether or not it is a potential worry. Samaritans say this verification process exists as ``you know your friends better than anyone else'', but also to help tighten up the computer algorithm used to monitor keywords.  

If a user confirms that a tweet is worrying, information and guidance on how to approach the poster and talk to them is sent out. The advice will include tips on how to introduce the idea of contacting Samaritans, but the charity confirmed that they would not get involved unless requested to do so by those involved.

Simon McAvoy, from digital agency Jam, who created the app, said: ''Social media gets a lot of bad press, but we believe there is good to be done.''

Samaritans confirmed that the app looks for keywords and phrases found as part of a study on suicide websites, and the created software will continue to evolve through user interaction and the verification process.

Patricia Cartes, Twitter's global head of trust and safety outreach, said that the younger generation were the key audience for the new app.

''While the app is aimed at anyone using Twitter, the key audience for Samaritans Radar is the 'Millennials' group - otherwise known as Generation Y - which typically includes 18 to 35-year-olds. They are 'digital natives' - growing up using new technology and the first generation to grow up with computers in their home.

``They are the most active age group across social platforms and spend an average of just over three hours daily on social networks. This group is sometimes referred to as Generation Me, due to their self-interest and high expectations of their lives.''

Professor Jonathan Scourfield, from the school of social sciences at Cardiff University, explained how a pattern had been found between suicidal language being posted online and the number of suicides highlighted the need to monitor places such as Twitter more.

''Through social media there has been a normalisation of suicidal language through repeated use online,'' he said.

''Twitter is important because past studies have found that a correlation between suicidal statements posted online and resulting suicides exists.''

Prof Scourfield went on to discuss the type of phrases that the app has been programmed to look out for, including more ambiguous phrases such as ''I want to sleep and never wake up''.

Mr Ferns was also asked why the technology was only focusing on Twitter and not Facebook as well, and while he confirmed that Samaritans was looking to work with more social media, he described Twitter as ``more open'' and in the public domain, making it easier to monitor at this stage of Radar's development.

Anyone with a Twitter account can activate Samaritans Radar by visiting the website and signing into Twitter and providing an email address for alerts to be sent to.