Internet search engines may help save lives in the future, thanks to scientists who are developing a way to effectively identify users who are at risk of suicide and provide them with information on where to find help. Search engine queries not only tell a lot about the user's interests and predilections, they also contain information relating to their mood or state of health.
In response to recommendations by the World Health Organisation (WHO), search engines like Google are already responding to search queries containing terms which imply that the user might be contemplating suicide by specifically drawing attention to counselling and other suicide prevention services. "The Internet is playing an increasingly significant role in suicide prevention," said Florian Arendt from Ludwig-Maximilian University (LMU) in Germany.
Indeed, several studies indicate that suicidal persons can be deterred from taking their lives when reminded of available help resources. Researchers carried out a study on how the algorithms that search engines use to parse queries might be modified so as to ensure that they more effectively target remedial information to those at risk.
An earlier study showed that only 25% of the queries classified by Google as potentially suicide-related lead to the presentation of the Google "suicide prevention result" as recommended by the WHO. "In other words, search engines are not optimally using their potential to help those who are at risk," Sebastian Scherr, from LMU.
Researchers develop an approach which seeks to make better use of the context in which potentially suicide-related search terms appear. Epidemiological studies have shown that suicidal behaviour is strongly influenced by environmental factors. This is reflected, for example, by the fact that suicide numbers peak at particular times - for example, on certain family holidays as well as on particular weekdays.
Taking the word 'poisoning' as a representative "suicide-related" search term, researchers analysed temporal patterns of its use in queries submitted to Google. Strikingly, they found that the fraction of queries containing the term peaked exactly on days on which the actual incidence of suicide was particularly high.
"This suggests that, on these peak days at least, the thresholds for the dispatch of information related to suicide prevention should be reset," said Scherr.
The study appeared in the journal Health Communication.