Google does good; a ‘PSR’ for suicide prevention
Looks like PSAs (public service announcements) are continuing the jump from old media to Google’s new media search-based world. In what can be called a PSR (public service result), Google has started displaying the national suicide prevention hotline phone number in response to search terms signaling possible suicidal intent. Doing a search on “suicide methods” or “I want to kill myself” results in a prominent red telephone with the suicide hotline number, regardless of what their trusted algorithms would otherwise have displayed.
Good for you Google, you did good. Real good. I must say I’m impressed: giving away prime real-estate to help people in unbearable pain is a smart good thing to do (just don’t let it go to your head—doing good is not the same as not doing evil and you are still evil).
But nothing is perfect and here are a couple of suggestions for improving this service:
1. Expand the range of search terms included. For example, a search on “efficient suicide” does not result in the potentially life-saving red telephone (although “painless suicide” does). Google could even partner with researchers and clinicians to find actual data on what search terms were used by people who do try to kill themselves.
2. Vary the visuals that carry the message. People can obsess about suicide: picking at the idea over and over. For those online searchers trapped in repetitive loops of suicidal thinking there will likely be many, many searches. But when people encounter the same image over and over habituation sets in and the message get’s ignored. So, to be noticed it would help to have the message packaged with several different icons or looks.
3. Add the varying message to multiple pages. The current widget only shows on the first page of search results. Google should add it on all the pages, and in varying format, to make sure the message catches the eye of the people who need to see it.
The press attention has so far been deservedly positive, such as in the NY Times, the LA Times, and HuffPo. These reports also mention how this is Google’s second PSR: the first being a link to poison control in response to relevant search terms.
Let’s hope they don’t stop here. With Google becoming our default digital background comes responsibility. Making potentially life-saving information easily accessible independent of their algorithms is an important step towards fulfilling that responsibility. I wonder what other PSRs might be useful enough to be worth doing.
[for those following the "A Clinical Portrait of Excessive Online Porn-Use" series, the fourth installment will be posted Friday]