SAN FRANCISCO — Faced with an alarming phenomenon, people taking their own lives on its live-streaming service, Facebook is stepping up efforts to prevent suicides.
On Wednesday, Facebook announced it will integrate real-time suicide prevention tools into Facebook Live. It also said it will offer live-chat support from crisis support organizations such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Crisis Text Line through Facebook Messenger, and make it easier to report suicide or self-injury. The most novel of the new tools: Facebook is testing artificial intelligence to identify warning signs of self-harm and suicide in Facebook posts and comments.
The goal, says Facebook, to connect people in distress with people who can help.
In January, a 14-year-old girl hung herself in her Florida foster home and a 33-year-old aspiring actor shot himself in a car on a Los Angeles street, both on Facebook Live. A young Turkish man who had broken up with his girlfriend told viewers before committing suicide on Facebook Live in October: "No one believed when I said will kill myself. So watch this."
Public suicide is not new, but technologies such as live streaming have helped these haunting public acts reach far more people.
Facebook, which opened up its Live feature to the public last year, has been pushing its more than 1.8 billion users to try out the feature, rolling out an advertising campaign and featuring live streams in users' news feeds.
Live lets Facebook users share their lives publicly in real time. It can be a powerful tool to celebrate joyful occasions, say a wedding anniversary or a child's first steps, and to capture traumatic, sometimes graphic, events as they unfold, such as the police shooting of Philando Castile last summer or the torture of a mentally challenged teenager in Chicago in January.
Suicide is still a rare event on Facebook Live, which launched last year, and numbers are hard to come by.
According to Dan Reidenberg, the executive director of Save.org, who advises Facebook, there have been seven known cases since live streaming became available, not all of them on Facebook. Facebook spokesman William Nevius refused to say how many people have broadcast on Facebook Live as they have taken their own lives.
However small the number of suicides on Facebook Live, the trend is troubling to Nadine Kaslow, professor in Emory University School of Medicine's department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
"Unfortunately we have now seen a growing series of young people and adults committing suicide and showing this on Facebook Live," says Kaslow, the former president of the American Psychological Association.
"There always has been this concern: Will something like this cause an epidemic or rash?" she said. "The answer is: We don't know yet."
Among Internet companies, Facebook is considered a leader in suicide prevention, regularly updating tools to make it easier to report suicide or self-harm. It began developing tools 10 years ago following a wave of suicides among high school students in Palo Alto, Calif., then the Silicon Valley headquarters of the company.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged to find innovative ways to prevent suicide on Facebook in a recent letter to Facebook users. "There have been terribly tragic events — like suicides, some live streamed — that perhaps could have been prevented if someone had realized what was happening and reported them sooner," he wrote.
After consulting suicide prevention experts, Facebook decided to offer intervention tools to the person streaming the video and the person viewing it.
With Wednesday's changes, people concerned about a friend who's streaming about suicide will be able to reach out to the person directly and report the video to Facebook. Facebook will provide resources to assist the person reporting the stream. The person streaming live will see resources as they are filming. They can choose to reach out to a friend, contact a helpline or see tips.
"Some people may say we should cut off the stream the moment there's a hint of somebody talking about suicide, but what we learned from the experts and what they emphasized to us is that cutting off the stream too early removes the chance of someone being able to reach out and provide help," said Jennifer Guadagno, Facebook's lead researcher for suicide prevention. "In this way, Live becomes a lifeline. It opens up the opportunity for people to reach out for support and for people to give support at this time that's critically important."
Suicide has surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, adding urgency to Facebook's efforts.
People commit suicide in public ways for any number of reasons. They may be hoping someone will stop them. They may want to share their pain with the world. They may be trying to memorialize their death.
The worry: Suicide is devastating for the people who view it and could encourage others who are struggling to attempt it, too, said Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
"One of the strongest findings in the suicide contagion literature is giving people ideas about how to kill themselves, especially if they are novel," he said.
With continual access to social networks and other online services, people are sharing more and more of their lives online. Social support from family and friends can be crucial when people are struggling with feelings of isolation and alienation, suicide prevention advocates say.
"One of the things we have learned from experts is that social support is one of the best ways to prevent suicide," Guadagno said.
A lack of social support has been said to play a role in suicides broadcast live.
In 2008, a Florida college student overdosed while streaming the video on his webcam. Of the viewers who witnessed the act, some pleaded with him to stop, others urged him on. In 2007, a 42-year-old father of two from Britain hung himself on camera while in a chat forum that encouraged people to insult one another. Again, some of the viewers egged him on.
Facebook users could already report videos in which people were engaged in self harm. In three instances, viewers of live streams were able to stop people from committing suicide, Save.org's Reidenberg said. For example, police in California worked with police in New York to locate and help a woman streaming an apparent suicide attempt from her car.
"Facebook has prioritized suicide prevention on its new live streaming platform in response to what has happened," he said.
Intercepting someone in the act of suicide on Facebook Live will be challenging, the University of Pennsylvania's Romer said.
"I think this is going to be a problem for Facebook, no question," Romer said. "And they are probably very worried about it."
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