Samaritans; the Bad, the Bad and the Wrong

depressed_teen_fem_america_by_dinochao-d5953paDepression is a horrible thing. It can make people completely close themselves off to the world around them and people will often need encouragement to access the support they need.

There are several good ways to do this, gentle support, firm encouragement, showing someone who suffers from depression that they’re cared about and valued. The incorrect way to do this is to monitor people’s Twitter posts and send messages to the people that follow them when anything deemed to be “worrying” is said.

The Samaritans recently made public their “Radar” Twitter app, a delightful little piece of tech that, once you install it, monitors your twitter feed. It searches for words and phrases that are deemed to be worrying, or indicators of low mood, anxiety, desperation or suicidal thoughts among other things. It then sends out a notification when it sees a tweet that it thinks is concerning. The public reaction to the app was a very negative one, to the point where only nine days after it was released the app had to be pulled completely.

On a purely theoretical level this seems almost noble. It can be very hard for people who suffer from depression to reach out to people directly. Flagging an indirect tweet as concerning might provide impetus to provide, or indeed allow oneself to receive support. However even on a basic level the idea is problematic, using an algorithm to decide if someone’s tweets mean they’re likely to be having depressed thoughts leads to a high potential for false positives. It’s not an efficient system for a “depression watch”, as many people who post tweets with phrases such as the ones the radar picks up are not actually going to be saying worrying things. “I’m going to hurt myself” may get flagged legitimately but a phrase like “I don’t want to hurt myself” would also be flagged. It creates situations in which the efficiency of the proposed support given is compromised by those who are in no need of any support.

But the main issue isn’t those who aren’t suffering, the main issue is those who are. The app does not let people know when a post of theirs has been shown to someone, and they aren’t informed of who saw their posts. Given the propensity for certain groups on the internet for mockery and abuse it puts those who actually suffer from depression in a vulnerable position. it notifies potential bullies, abusers and stalkers of their insecurities.

Yes, the tweets are public. But the app does more than publicise them, it directs them towards not who the victim may want to show, but whoever wants to see. In a climate of high levels of cyberbulling it shows a bizarre lack of understanding about the internet as a tool for abuse as well as support. One of the most bizzare things though is that instead of people having to opt in to the radar for their tweets to be monitored, they have to opt out, even if they don’t know the service exists, they’re still being surveyed. It’s almost Orwellian and certainly voyeuristic.

The Samaritans Radar app was thankfully taken down very shortly after being launched but its existence at all is evidence of a dreadful lack of understanding when it comes to supporting those with mental health issues and how the Internet can affect them negatively. What started perhaps as a noble but idiotic idea could very quickly have turned into a monstrous tool for abuse. For a suicide prevention charity to make such a misstep is a pretty clear sign that the Samaritans need to re-evaluate their understanding of the issues they aim to confront.

Bottom Line:

Apps are not an efficient way to treat depression and may cause further detriment to those suffering from it.

1 Comment

  1. quack
    08 January 2015 - 23:22 GMT

    Do you really think that if someone wanted to bully a person they’d go to the extent of downloading an app. Unless the bully is socially inept and has a poor grasp of human emotion, then I think it’s safe to say the radar app wouldn’t ever be a bullies ‘go-to’ app.

    More good than harm would come of it. That is not to say I think the app is a good idea- rather, I think that it would be beneficial for those suffering from depression. You portray the internet as though it’s a dingy lair full of bullies. Folks on the internet can be pretty brutal but I can assure you that a random persons twitter wouldn’t be on the hit list for a bully. The most damage inflicted from bullies usually occurs when the bully knows the person outside of the virtual world.

Comments are closed.