Can Social Network Activity Reveal Risk for Suicidal Ideation?

Social networking sites (SNS) are the most popular venues for young adults to meet, share information, and communicate. Across the globe, users are staying connected with various SNSs like Facebook. In Japan, the most popular SNS is called “mixi.” With over 25 million users, mixi allows members to join for free, create friendships, and join communities. It also presents a ripe environment for data retrieval. Because so many young adults use mixi, Naoki Masuda of the Department of Mathematical Informatics at the University of Tokyo thought it would be an idea place to collect information about user trends related to suicide. Suicide is the leading cause of death among young adults in Japan and research into suicidal ideation among this segment of the population could help propel efforts aimed at reducing risk.

Masuda considered social isolation, social friendships, and social networking- through communities with suicidal content for the study. After reviewing how many friendships users had and how many suicidal-content communities they were affiliated with, Masuda concluded that social isolation and connection were directly related to suicidal ideation. More specifically, the more suicide related communities that a member belonged to, the higher their risk for suicidal ideation.

Slightly lower risk was evidenced by overlapping triangles of communities, in which a member belonged to several communities with other members. The lowest risk for suicidal ideation, although still high, was in the instance of friend networks overlapping with community memberships. “Remarkably,” added Masuda, “the most significant three variables represent online social behavior of users rather than demographic properties such as the age and gender.”

The associations found in this study persisted when Masuda replaced suicidal ideation with depression. The order of risk factors remained the same when the members were assessed for depressive symptoms and depression community affiliations and triangles. Mixi is comprised of users of all types and provides access to communities of every nature. Therefore, a SNS such as mixi could offer a robust and relative pool of data for research examining the risk trends of other psychological issues, including substance abuse, bipolar, and schizophrenia.

Masuda, N., Kurahashi, I., Onari, H. (2013). Suicide Ideation of Individuals in Online Social Networks. PLoS ONE 8(4): e62262. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062262

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  • fraser


    May 15th, 2013 at 10:30 PM

    this is very good analysis. A lot of coolly isolated people avoid or do not have friends in the real world. So the only place for them to turn to or seek solace would be the virtual world. finding such people there is the only way to look for cues.

    now the next step would be to somehow get these people to seek help or prevent them from taking that step. After all that is the ultimate aim.

  • Bailee l

    Bailee l

    May 16th, 2013 at 3:48 AM

    I honestly believe that when someone is contemplating suicide most of the time when you look back on their actions leading up to it, in their own way they try to tell you what they are planning to do.

    They may not say it in specific words but when you go back and read between the lines, all of the information is there. The sad part is that most of us don’t see all of that until after the tragedy has occurred.

  • max


    May 16th, 2013 at 11:20 AM

    Have been giving this a little bit of thought, and I think that the more someone sees suicide as being so prevalent in their world, then perhaps this is when they start thinking that it could be the solution to their problems too.
    I have to say that even being depressed and going through so tough times this isn’t something that I would have ever seriously considered only because it has never struck me as being any kind of real solution, only adding to the problems of my friends and family.
    But I know that there are some people who do see it as resolution, and if it is something that they have witnessed or been a part of before then it is even more likely then they could begin to fixate on how they or the people around them could benefit too if this is the action that they take.

  • Blakely


    May 17th, 2013 at 3:55 AM

    You can learn an awful lot about someone by their online musings and activity. Often it is a matter of not writing it off and taking things seriously that we might be inclined to ignore or think that someone is joking. If it is serious enough then don’t take it lightly. They might be trying to tell us something. Furthermore, I think that if you have someone who is close to you and this is the outlet that they are using then this speaks of trouble too. You want them to be able to come to you and talk in person and not have to air their issues online.

  • Les


    May 20th, 2013 at 4:50 AM

    Come on! There have to be better ways to study human tendencies than social networks!

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