Facebook Posts Can Signal Risky Behavior, Researchers Say

Peter Foley/Bloomberg via Getty(MADISON, Wis.) -- Up to 98 percent of U.S. college students use social networks such as Facebook -- a fact some health experts hope to use. "I think Facebook is a new window on an old problem," said Dr. Megan Moreno, a pediatrician at UW Health in Madison, Wis.

Moreno has been studying whether online posts can predict offline problems, from drug and alcohol abuse to depression.

"I don't think we can use Facebook to make a judgment, but we can use it as a trigger to ask more questions face-to-face," he added.

The thought of using Facebook to flag risky, potentially illegal behavior raises ethical and legal questions: What should people do if they suspect a friend is in danger? And if they do nothing or their actions cause more trouble, are they liable?

Moreno said society is "still learning" what to do with the scores of information made public on Facebook. "And yes, we should be thinking about the ethical and legal side of this," she said. "But we can't let that get in the way of us just asking, 'Are you OK?'"

For those with many online “friends,” people might be less likely to speak up because of a phenomenon psychologists call the "bystander effect."

"You can get a situation where 800 friends look around and say, 'I'm sure his three closest friends are looking into this,'" said Moreno. "It actually mirrors what happens in the offline world."

Aida Ingram, a youth counselor in Clayton, N.J., said it's better to speak up than to assume the person is fine.

"It's a shame for a whole community to watch a child spiral out of control, whether on Facebook or in the real world," said Ingram, whose daughter will soon head to college. "The last thing you want is to go to someone's funeral knowing you saw a worrying Facebook post and did nothing. I'd rather embarrass myself."

Facebook, too, is figuring out its role in keeping users out of harm's way. In December, the site launched a program that allows users to instantly connect with a crisis counselor through the "chat" messaging system. And on Feb. 2, two Colorado teens were credited with saving a suicidal teen's life through Facebook.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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