Perceived Utility and Characterization of Personal Google Search Histories to Detect Data Patterns Proximal to a Suicide Attempt in Individuals Who Previously Attempted Suicide: Pilot Cohort Study

J Med Internet Res. 2021 May 6;23(5):e27918. doi: 10.2196/27918.


Background: Despite decades of research to better understand suicide risk and to develop detection and prevention methods, suicide is still one of the leading causes of death globally. While large-scale studies using real-world evidence from electronic health records can identify who is at risk, they have not been successful at pinpointing when someone is at risk. Personalized social media and online search history data, by contrast, could provide an ongoing real-world datastream revealing internal thoughts and personal states of mind.

Objective: We conducted this study to determine the feasibility and acceptability of using personalized online information-seeking behavior in the identification of risk for suicide attempts.

Methods: This was a cohort survey study to assess attitudes of participants with a prior suicide attempt about using web search data for suicide prevention purposes, dates of lifetime suicide attempts, and an optional one-time download of their past web searches on Google. The study was conducted at the University of Washington School of Medicine Psychiatry Research Offices. The main outcomes were participants' opinions on internet search data for suicide prediction and intervention and any potential change in online information-seeking behavior proximal to a suicide attempt. Individualized nonparametric association analysis was used to assess the magnitude of difference in web search data features derived from time periods proximal (7, 15, 30, and 60 days) to the suicide attempts versus the typical (baseline) search behavior of participants.

Results: A total of 62 participants who had attempted suicide in the past agreed to participate in the study. Internet search activity varied from person to person (median 2-24 searches per day). Changes in online search behavior proximal to suicide attempts were evident up to 60 days before attempt. For a subset of attempts (7/30, 23%) search features showed associations from 2 months to a week before the attempt. The top 3 search constructs associated with attempts were online searching patterns (9/30 attempts, 30%), semantic relatedness of search queries to suicide methods (7/30 attempts, 23%), and anger (7/30 attempts, 23%). Participants (40/59, 68%) indicated that use of this personalized web search data for prevention purposes was acceptable with noninvasive potential interventions such as connection to a real person (eg, friend, family member, or counselor); however, concerns were raised about detection accuracy, privacy, and the potential for overly invasive intervention.

Conclusions: Changes in online search behavior may be a useful and acceptable means of detecting suicide risk. Personalized analysis of online information-seeking behavior showed notable changes in search behavior and search terms that are tied to early warning signs of suicide and are evident 2 months to 7 days before a suicide attempt.

Keywords: EHR; behavior; eHealth; internet; mental health; online seeking behavior; personalized; real-world data; risk; search history; social media; suicide; suicide detection; suicide risk factors; web searches; website.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Cohort Studies
  • Humans
  • Information Seeking Behavior
  • Internet
  • Pilot Projects
  • Search Engine*
  • Suicide, Attempted*