Universities to trawl through students social media to look for suicide risk

Universities are to trawl through students’ social media to look for signs that they may be suicidal, as part of a new project funded by the higher education watchdog.The new scheme, backed by the Office for Students (OfS), is aimed at reducing suicide rates and identifying students in crisis by harvesting data on individuals.  Northumbria University, which is leading the three year project, will design and pilot an “Early Alert Tool” which, if successful, could be rolled out at all British institutions.The university has been running a project for the past two years where a team monitor students’ library use, lecture attendance and academic performance. They use this information to “nudge” students when their engagement drops off. Under the new OfS-backed scheme, the data collected on each student would extend to monitoring social media posts, conversations they have with individual members of staff and information held by their accommodation provider.Professor Peter Francis, deputy vice-Chancellor of Northumbria who is leading the project, said: “We know students use social media, they engage with one another, they use it in a variety of different forms.“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?” “Students’ safety is of utmost importance and funding may well be needed for better mental health services, but this approach will understandably generate anxiety amongst much of the student population.”Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said that too many students have the higher education “blighted by mental ill-health”.  She added: “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.” It is one of ten projects that the OfS is funding as part of a £14.5 million drive to improve student mental health.  One project that won funding is aimed at supporting students through the transition from school to university. Another will address the specific mental health needs of international students. He said the project will explore new types of student data that can be analysed including “through conversations with individuals that might be collected but not shared, not bought together and reviewed centrally in a coordinated way”.Prof Francis added that the scheme would be data protection compliant, and that students would have to opt in.But privacy campaigners have warned that students should not be used as “guinea pigs” for “big data experiments” on mental health.Jen Persson, director of the data privacy campaign group Defend Digital Me, said: “Students need to know that in a time of need they can have a private conversation. The last thing you need is to worry about people listening in.“There is a huge pressure on supporting people’s mental health at universities – but institutions mustn’t rush in to thinking that big data is the solution to very sensitive unique problems for individuals.”Silkie Carlo, Director of Big Brother Watch, said that using social media monitoring is an “oppressive” and “intrusive” approach to safeguarding students’ wellbeing. She said it sets a “dangerous” example of the privacy and data rights young people should expect in later life.“It is essential for young people’s wellbeing that their privacy is respected but this intrusive approach risks making students feel monitored, anxious and judged,” she added.  Want the best of The Telegraph direct to your email and WhatsApp? Sign up to our free twice-daily  Front Page newsletter and new  audio briefings. read more