Samaritans has launched a new Twitter app that enables users to monitor the accounts of their friends for distressing messages and then offer guidance supplied by the charity.
Called Samaritans Radar, the new app is activated by visiting the Radar website. Once linked to your account the app will then send you alerts when someone you follow on Twitter posts something deemed to be potentially worrying.
This is done by a specially created algorithm that identifies words and phrases that could suggest depression or suicidal thoughts.
Joe Ferns, executive director of policy, research and development at Samaritans, said:
"Social media has changed how we talk to each other. It has created a dis-inhibition effect that means people are being more honest online.
"We know that people struggling to cope often go online looking for support, however, there is still so much we need to learn about why this happens and how we can make the online environment safer for vulnerable people."
Mr Ferns believes the app is a major step forward because it'll start encouraging friends to help each other first, rather than going with an 'organisation first' approach.
"By not addressing this issue we run the risk of shutting these discussions down and driving them underground. Instead we need to use tools such as Samaritans Radar to encourage people to look out for one another online, helping them to reach out and offer support. People will go to friends first. This app and the guidance provided enables them to help."
Mr Ferns was asked why the technology was only focusing on Twitter and not Facebook as well, and while he confirmed that Samaritans was looking to work with more social media, he described Twitter as "more open" and in the public domain, making it easier to monitor at this stage of Radar's development.
After activation, users will receive an alert via email when a potentially worrying tweet is spotted. Once a user has logged in, they will be able to see the tweet and confirm whether or not it is a potential worry.
If confirmed, information and guidance on how to approach the poster and talk to them is sent out. The advice will include tips on how to introduce the idea of contacting Samaritans, but the charity confirmed that they would not get involved unless requested to do so by those involved.
Simon McAvoy, from digital agency Jam, who created the app, said: "Social media gets a lot of bad press, but we believe there is good to be done."
Samaritans confirmed that the app looks for keywords and phrases found as part of a study on suicide websites, and the created software will continue to evolve through user interaction and the verification process.
Patricia Cartes, Twitter's global head of trust and safety outreach, said that the younger generation were the key audience for the new app.
"While the app is aimed at anyone using Twitter, the key audience for Samaritans Radar is the 'Millennials' group - otherwise known as Generation Y - which typically includes 18 to 35-year-olds. They are 'digital natives' - growing up using new technology and the first generation to grow up with computers in their home.
"They are the most active age group across social platforms and spend an average of just over three hours daily on social networks. This group is sometimes referred to as Generation Me, due to their self-interest and high expectations of their lives."
Professor Jonathan Scourfield, from the school of social sciences at Cardiff University, explained how a pattern had been found between suicidal language being posted online and the number of suicides highlighted the need to monitor places such as Twitter more.
"Through social media there has been a normalisation of suicidal language through repeated use online," he said.Suggest a correction
"Twitter is important because past studies have found that a correlation between suicidal statements posted online and resulting suicides exists."