However, there appears to be a disconnect between the ways in which young people and professional organizations use social media for suicide prevention. For example, while young people primarily appear to use social media to seek support from, and share experiences with their peers, organizations largely use it for awareness raising purposes and to promote their own services. And although some organisations are offering interactive forums for suicidal young people, these seem to be in the minority.10

Perhaps this is understandable. Concerns exist regarding the safety of talking about suicide via social media in general and with regard to operating these sorts of sites safely. Indeed professionals have identified the need for robust policies and protocols to guide the development and delivery of interactive suicide prevention sites.10 Guidelines to help professionals deliver safe suicide prevention services online have been developed in the U.S.,14 however there remains more to be done in terms of generalizing these to other settings and evaluating their impact.

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Social media also presents a set of challenges in terms of research methodology. Indeed, the very attributes that make it popular with young people (i.e. its reach and the anonymity it affords) mean that it is hard to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions delivered in this way, and that as researchers we may need to apply new methodologies.  For example, participatory, iterative research designs that make use of rapid prototyping and ongoing user testing are required.15 These types of approaches have not traditionally been used in health research but are increasingly necessary.

New work is underway that is testing these approaches in a small project in Melbourne, Australia. Here, researchers are working hand-in-hand with a group of high school students to develop suicide prevention interventions (short films, images and postcards) designed by and for young people that can be delivered as part of a suicide prevention campaign using social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

These are still being evaluated but the project has been shown to have key benefits such as helping young people feel better able to communicate safely about suicide online.  While still in its infancy, this work appears to indicate that it can be both safe and beneficial to work alongside young people in this way.16