Non-English speaker less likely to get automated suicide-prevention advice from Google

Do people with suicidal thoughts see potentially life-saving information when they go online? It may depend on the language they’re using, research shows.

Sebastian Scherr, an assistant professor at KU Leuven’s School for Mass Communication Research, has discovered that when it comes to online searches not all languages are created equal. 

Together with Mario Haim and Florian Arendt, two colleagues at the University of Munich (LMU), he discovered that English-language Google users with suicidal thoughts are far more likely to see an infobox prompting them to seek help than speakers of any other language. 

Why does this matter? Because people with suicidal thoughts who seek information online are at their most vulnerable, Scherr says. "It’s a situation where you can be pushed in both directions easily. And even small pushes away from the suicidal tendency can be helpful."

Google icon

It’s why in 2010, Google decided to start displaying a special result at the top of the first page of search results when users entered suicide-related search terms - for instance, "ways to commit suicide" or "am having suicidal thoughts." The suicide-prevention result, as Scherr and his colleagues called it, encourages users to chat with counsellors online and lists e.g., telephone numbers of national suicide prevention resources. 

But following an extensive research project across a dozen countries, Scherr and his colleagues have now found that Google users who enter suicide-related search terms in any other language than English are far less likely to see that potentially life-saving infobox.

Virtual agents in 11 countries

Scherr, Haim and Arendt programmed a number of virtual agents to Google a series of randomly assigned terms as if they were human users Googling something on a fresh computer. 

The terms were divided into three categories: suicide-helpful (for instance, "overcoming suicidal thoughts"), suicide-harmful ("best method for suicide") and terms wholly unrelated to suicide (for instance, "lemon"). 

These terms were translated into languages like Mandarin, Portuguese and Korean by local suicide-prevention experts from 11 countries, who were also encouraged to add language-specific suicide-related terms. 

English always wins

English-language Google users with suicidal thoughts are far more likely to see an infobox prompting them to seek help than speakers of any other language.

The virtual agents ran these search terms over a longer period of time, generating over a million search queries and thus a fairly stable finding - that the suicide-prevention result is more likely to be shown to English speakers than to speakers of other languages. 

"English is always the winner," Scherr says. "This means, for instance, that if you’re in India and you’re English speaking, you’re more likely to get the suicide prevention result. But if you Google in Telugu or Hindi, the likelihood that you get to see the box is way smaller," he says, referring to two languages widely spoken in India. 

The reason for that seems as clear as day. "Google is based in the US, and most of the programming is done in English," Scherr says. "They start in English and then new technologies, new implementations such as this suicide-prevention result move through the company - apparently at different speeds."

Get the Google conversation going

It’s unclear whether Google is aware of these language-based implementation disparities and whether they have seen the researchers’ findings. "We’re still trying to get into a conversation with Google about these results," Scherr admits, pointing out that they have contacted the company and have posted the search terms in all the used languages online so anyone can access them - but so far no response.

"But even if they’re not talking to us, Google can take the search terms and implement them into their algorithm across all their platforms and hopefully contribute to suicide-prevention in this way," Scherr says.

Are you at risk? Is someone you know thinking about suicide? Call Belgium’s suicide help line at 1813 (in Dutch) or visit www.chs-belgium.org. KU Leuven students can seek help at www.mindmates.be. 

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