“Risks in Using Social Media to Spot Signs of Mental Distress”


In the New York Times, Natasha Singer discusses last year’s launch by the Samaritans of an app that allowed people to track others’ mental health status on Twitter, and why the Samaritans’ shut it down amidst protest. More such apps are being developed, but are they actually going to endanger vulnerable people more than help them, asks Singer.

“A week after the [Samaritans’] app was introduced on its website, more than 4,000 people had activated it, the Samaritans said, and those users were following nearly 1.9 million Twitter accounts, with no notification to those being monitored,” writes Singer. “But just about as quickly, the group faced an outcry from people who said the app, called Samaritans Radar, could identify and prey on the emotionally vulnerable — the very people the app was created to protect.”

Singer quotes one Twitter commenter, “A tool that ‘lets you know when your friends need support’ also lets you know when your stalking victim is vulnerable #SamaritansRadar.”

The Samaritans are now “reconsidering” the outreach program and have disabled the app, states Singer.

“You would be mislabeling millions of people,” psychiatrist and MIA Blogger Allen Frances commented. “There would be all sorts of negative consequences… And then you can have sophisticated employment consultants who will do the vetting on people’s psychiatric states, derived from some cockamamie algorithm, on your Twitter account.”

Risks in Using Social Media to Spot Signs of Mental Distress (New York Times, December 27, 2014)


  1. “Psycho Pass” in Japan. This is for entertainment purposes only to promote a movie. But how long until this is for real? It says the system operates on Microsoft “Kinetic,” but they must mean “Kinect.” I have a Kinect for Xbox in my living room. I don’t think the possibility that someone, somewhere (like the NSA) is spying on me or even monitoring my mood with it is so farfetched anymore.


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  2. Related to this is the issue of psychiatrists snooping on social media to check on some patients for signs of suicidal ideation. It is not uncommon practice in the UK and they are clever enough to use pseudos because, well, it’s not really ethical, is it….
    This is regularly discussed at an ethics (!) committee meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrists …

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