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Facebook hopes artificial intelligence can curb the ‘terribly tragic’ trend of suicides

(Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Just like that, Naika Venant was live.

The 14-year-old girl was on Facebook, broadcasting from a bathroom at her foster home in southeastern Florida. Then, she was hanging from a scarf tied to a shower’s glass door frame — a deeply painful and personal moment playing out publicly on social media.

A friend saw the video stream on Facebook Live and called 911, but officers were sent to the wrong address.

By the time they got to the foster home in Miami Gardens, it was too late: Naika had committed suicide.

“Naika was my baby girl,” her biological mother, Gina Alexis, said at a news conference, according to the Miami Herald. “I am sick and devastated. I have trusted Florida foster care people to care for my baby. Instead she kills herself on Facebook.

“I have to bury my baby,” she added.

Mental-health experts say there is no question that social media is becoming a platform for public suicide. The concern is that people who are planning to take their own lives can broadcast their own deaths in real time — which is not only devastating for those who die but also for those watching it happen online.

“We haven’t seen a lot of it,” said John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, “but when we see it, it’s very disturbing.”

Nadine Kaslow, a past president of the American Psychological Association, said that although they are not common, “These postings are a very concerning trend. People can see them over and over and over again.”

The question is: Why would someone choose to die that way — and what would it do to those watching it?

A 12-year-old girl live-streamed her suicide. It took two weeks for Facebook to take the video down.

Facebook said Wednesday that it is bolstering its suicide prevention tools to attempt to help prevent self-harm. The announcement was made just days after CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged the need for more and better ways to intervene.

“There have been terribly tragic events — like suicides, some live streamed — that perhaps could have been prevented if someone had realized what was happening and reported them sooner,” he wrote in a mid-February manifesto. He added that “artificial intelligence can help provide a better approach.”

The company said Wednesday that it is “updating the tools and resources we offer to people who may be thinking of suicide, as well as the support we offer to their concerned friends and family members.”

Facebook’s existing suicide prevention tools have been integrated into Facebook Live. People worried about a live-stream can reach out to the user in trouble or report the content to Facebook. And users who are in trouble will receive a notification with resources, including live chat support.

Facebook is also testing artificial intelligence to scan for posts as well as comments that indicate suicidal ideation and report them to the community operations team for review and possible intervention.

“With billions of posts shared each day, we rely on community reporting to quickly and accurately identify posts expressing thoughts of suicide,” Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said in a statement.

“As a community, we cannot prevent every suicide, but we must do more to reach out to people who are struggling,” Sandberg added. “As a society, we should strengthen the safety net for those who are most at risk: investing more in mental health care and support. As individuals, we can be alert for the signs in ourselves and in others and act immediately. Together, we can be there for people in distress.”

This 11-year-old survived cancer. Bullying drove her to suicide, her family says.

Facebook is a behemoth, with 1.86 billion monthly active users as of the end of 2016, according to company data. But it’s not the only social network where suicides have been live-streamed.

This year, a 12-year-old girl in Georgia hanged herself from a tree while broadcasting on the video streaming app Naika hanged herself in Florida.

Days later, a 33-year-old aspiring actor in California, who had been arrested and posted bond after accusations of domestic violence, shot himself in the head as people watched on Facebook Live. Similar scenes have played out abroad, according to news reports.

In the Miami Gardens case, Naika had been bouncing in and out of foster homes since 2009, when she was taken from her mother after her mother said she “physically disciplined” her daughter.

Naika, who had reportedly been sexually abused while in foster care, had talked about suicide and had been involuntarily hospitalized on several occasions, her mother said in a statement through an attorney.

On Jan. 22, Alexis, the mother, started receiving messages from friends, telling her to check her bathroom.

“But my daughter was not in my care,” she said in the statement. “I then got a call from a friend saying to contact DCF [Department of Children and Families] because something was wrong.”

Alexis said she tried to call Naika’s case manager, but did not get an answer. So she said she started phoning hospitals until she found the right one. When she got there, she said, she saw a case worker crying.

“That’s when I knew the worst had happened,” she said in the statement.

After Naika’s death, Mike Carroll, the secretary of Florida’s Department of Children and Families, said the department was “absolutely horrified and devastated by the news of this young girl’s death” and vowed to conduct a “comprehensive, multidisciplinary special review.”

The status of the department’s investigation is unclear.

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Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 14, and the second-leading cause of death among those ages 15 to 34, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than 44,000 people committed suicide in the United States in 2015, according to data from the CDC. Nearly half of them used firearms, according to the statistics.

The CDC does not appear to have data on the number of people who have committed suicide on social media.

Kaslow and Sarah Dunn, clinical director of the Grady Nia Project, a project for suicide prevention at Grady Memorial Hospital, say teens and young adults may choose to end their lives online for a number of reasons. The clinical psychologists say some people, particularly those who have been victims of cyberbullying, may do it as a form of revenge or to retaliate against the bullies.

“There seems to be a link between what goes on on social media and suicides on social media,” Dunn said. “It’s often a way of getting back at the bully.”

Some, the psychologists say, may choose to commit suicide online as a way to memorialize themselves.

Or other times, people may be broadcasting their actions, hoping that viewers will step in to stop them.

That happened this year when police in California worked with police in New York to save a woman streaming an apparent suicide attempt on Facebook Live.

Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office in California, said that on Jan. 25, a crisis center in Idaho, where the woman used to live, phoned police in Alameda County, where she had since moved, saying they had talked to a suicidal woman by phone and online. Alameda dispatchers began pinging her cellphone and discovered that she was in Rockville Centre, N.Y.

Dispatchers alerted authorities on Long Island, leading them to the woman using pings from her cellphone, Google Street View and the live feed from Facebook.

“While we were monitoring her, she went on Facebook Live,” Kelly said. He said she began cutting herself with “a blade” and “talking about her impending suicide.”

Kelly said when the New York authorities reached her, she was passed out in a car outside a church, but they rushed her to a nearby hospital and she survived.

“It’s disturbing to say the least,” he said of suicide attempts and suicides being broadcast on social media. “But as disturbing as it is, by them doing it, it actually alerts law enforcement to the event and we’re able to respond in real time. That’s the age we’re in with social media. We know social media has changed so many things in the way we live our lives and now including how we die.”

“The only advantage to this whole thing,” Kelly added, “is that the technology worked in our favor.”

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Psychologists also say suicides streaming on social media can have an effect on those who watch.

Draper, with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, said one concern is the risk of copycat acts.

Kaslow, who is also a psychology professor at Emory School of Medicine, said that although social media gives people a platform to talk about suicide in a constructive way, she agrees that it’s concerning when people are showing their own deaths in graphic detail. She said a concern is that live suicides could give others who are struggling a greater sense of “acquired capability” — the idea that, “If you can do it, I can do it.”

“What we don’t want to have happen is to make it seem easy to do,” she added. “That’s concerning.”

In response to the recent suicides that have been broadcast on Facebook Live, the social-media giant said in a statement that it was “saddened by these tragedies.”

“We take our responsibility to keep people safe on Facebook very seriously and work with organizations around the world to provide assistance for people in distress,” a representative said in a written statement.

Said Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: “We really need to remind people that there’s something that they can do when they spot people — whether it’s online or offline — who are suicidal. There are things they can do to prevent suicide.”

This story, originally published Feb. 8, has been updated.

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