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Facebook Saves Lives

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Remember when, instead of being an online behemoth that keeps track of everything you read, write, listen to and -- obviously -- buy, Facebook was just a place to look at pictures of cute classmates and turn down donation requests for your friends’ half-marathons?

Yeah, me neither.

Well, hot on the heels of news of iPhone (AAPL) and Android (GOOG) apps that might help cure anxiety and depression comes an interesting piece from the New York Times. Apparently, Facebook status updates can serve as effective early warning system for depressed teenagers and young adults.

Facebook has been working with the National Suicide Prevention hotline since 2007. Under its current system, users can flag their friends’ comments as suicidal and, if this diagnosis is confirmed, both the reporter and the original commenter are sent a link to a prevention hotline.

While this seems like a somewhat blunt way to handle things, many in the psychological community think it’s a good first step. Of course, a study out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Washington found that 30% of college students’ posts met APA qualifications for depression.

Others are taking a more personal approach. One RA reported friending all of her charges on Facebook, and then having private conversations with students who seemed inordinately unhappy. A psychiatrist told the Times that when her patients posted things on their Facebook profiles, about therapy or otherwise, she brought them up in therapy.

The general assumption behind all this is that if someone posts something online, they want it to be seen. There have been several horrifying cases of suicide threats made online that were acted on after no one responded. While professionals recommend responding in person, any response is clearly a good idea.

That being said, these ideas are complicated by the results of a few recent studies, as well as the difficulty inherent to gauging the seriousness of a Facebook post. First off, a University of Waterloo study discovered that students with the lowest self-esteem tended to post the most, and the most negatively, online. However, their posts spawned annoyance, rather than sympathy, in their peers. Last December, Nielson reported that 23% of people who unfriend someone on Facebook do so because of depressing posts.

What we’re left with is the unfortunate reality that, while Facebook can help get unhappy people help, it might simultaneously make their problems worse. Of course, the fact that Facebook makes people unhappy isn’t exactly news.
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