Rarely do we see news stories about how social media can save lives, but that’s literally what happened in the metropolitan New York area this week. An 18-year-old posted in Facebook that he was thinking about jumping off the George Washington Bridge, and “a concerned Facebook user who saw the post contacted local New Jersey police, who then called the Port Authority Police Department, which has authority over the bridge,” NBC News reported. The Port Authority police found the young man’s Facebook page and “reached out with a plea to call their precinct” while also sending his photo to officers patrolling the bridge. Two hours after they reached out to him in Facebook, he called them from a bus. They talked for about 10 min., and the young man (who was not identified in the story) volunteered to be taken to a local hospital for evaluation after the Port Authority police arranged to give him a ride at the bus’s next stop.
The Port Authority police told NBC that they’d used social network sites before “to verify threats and gather background information but had never used them before to communicate directly with someone.” How wonderful that the first time they did reach out in a social site, someone was helped. Suicide prevention experts have been saying for years now that, especially in our very user-driven social media environment, people on the friends list of a person in crisis are often that person’s best “gatekeepers” and pre-first responders – life-savers.
In a social media environment, there’s no single first responder anymore. This is distributed, or social, first response. The life-saving in this case was shared by the concerned Facebook user who called the police, a Facebook page, at least three different police agencies (the New Jersey police who took the user’s call, the Port Authority Police and the police local to the young man’s bus route) and the young man who could see on his Facebook page that people cared enough to help.
[Thanks to Russella Sabella, expert on school counseling and education professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, for pointing this story out.]