University to monitor social media to identify those struggling with mental health

Tyrone Stewart

Stressed woman laptopA UK university is leading a three-year long project looking at using social media content and other data to find signs that students may be suicidal.

Northumbria University is partnering with nine other organisations to launch the pilot, which is backed by the Office for Students, for the ‘Early Alert Tool’.

The university already collects student data around their grades, both physical and virtual attendance records, and library usage. Under the new scheme, which students will have to opt-in to, this data will be combined with information from social media, conversations students have with staff, and data from their accommodation provider.

“We know students use social media, they engage with one another, they use it in a variety of different forms,” Professor Peter Francis, deputy vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, told The Telegraph.

“We are asking the questions – to what extent might that data provide some information to identify student profiles? This builds on what we have been doing. What other traces or types of data might we start to identify as being relevant?”

Though the scheme may have good intentions, there are several questions over how ethical it truly is. Issues around data privacy are constantly in the spotlight and there is also the problem of using a typically highly vulnerable group to trial such a thing.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said: “Whenever I talk to students, improving mental health support is consistently raised as a priority… in too many cases students are having their experience of higher education blighted by mental ill-health. For many of these students, there is much more that we can do. Taking preventative action to promote good mental health is critical, as is taking a whole institution approach and involving students in developing solutions. In addition, the earlier we can identify issues developing, the more effectively we can give the vital support that is needed.”