Digital Futures blog

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Digital Futures

Digital Futures blog #5: Our Digital Future.

08 December 2015

We have spent the last eight months having a conversation about the internet and suicide- you can read our #DigitalFutures report here. Thank you to everyone who’s been involved; it’s given us lots to think about and we have taken away some fundamental learning points for how we ‘do digital’ as a charity.

What did we learn?

We often distinguish between ‘online’ and ‘offline’  environments but people are largely looking for the same things regardless of whether they are using the internet or not. The internet doesn’t change what is important to people, and in the case of Samaritans this seems to be:

1.            To experience empathy

2.            To feel empowered

3.            To feel able to trust the service they are using

These emerged time and time again as crucial elements of support-regardless of how it is accessed. However, a number of unique challenges and areas of controversy also emerged through our conversations with people; differences do exist between what is acceptable online compared to offline.

For example, it is ever ok to reach out to people online if they appear to be in need of support and who can reach out and when? What constitutes harmful content online and how can we reduce its impact?  And whose responsibility is it to keep people safe online?

We don’t have the answers to these questions and having experienced the very different and contrasting views people have about these issues it is unlikely that we will be able to meet the needs of everyone online. However that isn’t a reason for shying away from online service development-rather we need to be mindful of ensuring what we develop is safe, supportive and not intrusive.

Where now?

Samaritans envisages undertaking a wholescale digital transformation programme to embed digital technologies across the organisation. Looking at everything we do and assessing our digital requirements will make sure we are able to respond to an increasingly technological world.

Various sectors are starting to move forward and adapt to the changes happening around them and ahead of these are swathes of small start-ups leading the way, whose nimble feet help them to adapt swiftly and move at pace.  It is essential that the charity sector follows suit to ensure we are doing the best for our beneficiaries and our supporters. The traditional ways that we plan, fundraise, manage and deliver projects don’t lend themselves to digital development. We need new innovative, iterative and agile ways of working. We also have to make sure people who use our services (or may use them in the future) are at the heart of what we do and cement co-design as an organisational norm.

We have a big challenge ahead of us but we absolutely cannot assume that the charity sector is immune to the risks of not responding to the changing world around us-it isn’t. We need to evolve, adapt and respond to make sure that we continue to be there, round the clock, every day of the year for those that need us. 


Jen Russell and Alison Hunter - Policy, Research and Development


Digital Futures blog #4: 70 million people. 70 million needs. Exploring differing preferences for everyone.

17 July 2015

In the final part of our #digitalfutures blog, we look at differing needs and preferences of people online.  What do you think? Tell us in the comments below, email us directly, or write your own blogs using the hashtag #digitalfutures and we will link to them on our website.

Experiences, preferences and needs are different for everyone and this has become increasingly apparent throughout our consultation. One example of this, where opinions are divided is whether to reach out proactively to people online and offer support when they appear to be struggling.

Some people find the idea of someone reaching out to them online invasive, disempowering and have talked about how it makes them feel there is something wrong with how they are feeling (although this differs depending on who is reaching out and how for example whether it is a charity or an individual). In contrast others have expressed how helpful they would find it if someone got in touch with them if they posted that they were going through a difficult time. The human contact online could help them feel less alone and to know someone cared.

How do we cater for both preferences? If something is going to help one person, is it OK to take the risk that it may then upset someone else? Or is it better not to do anything? And does this differ when it is an organisation or an individual online or offline?

There are people online who use the internet in certain ways to help support themselves when they are struggling to cope. However, what if there are also people online who may not feel able to ask for help, let alone know where to look for it. But may ultimately really benefit and appreciate support if they knew it was out there.

Digital Futures has highlighted several challenging issues in the online environment including: whether to reach out or not, how to deal with content that can be harmful to others online and how best to support people using the internet with all the potential that it offers. In finding the solutions, it isn’t possible to meet everyone’s preferences and needs - so what should be done?

What do you think? With such differing and opposing perspectives and preferences which ones do you prioritise and at what cost? Who is best placed to make these decisions if at all? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Please tell us in the comments box at the end of the page or email

This is the last of our blogs for now. We will be busy writing up the results of #DigitalFutures and will be posting more on this soon. 

Jen Russell and Alison Hunter - Policy, Research and Development


Digital Futures blog #3: Supporting others online: whose responsibility is it?

10 June 2015

Our Digital Futures discussions have already thrown up a number of possibilities for online support for people struggling to cope. Technology is incredibly versatile and is developing so quickly that the potential is huge. However, just because something is possible and could be done, does that mean it should be?

People use the internet in many ways when they’re going through a difficult time and expect different responses from the people who see their posts. So what role should be played by individuals, charities and organisations in taking action to support others? When is it okay to reach out and when is it not?

Individuals interacting online

Everyone has the right to express themselves and to choose how to respond to others. But, who should do what when someone online expresses difficult feelings, or an intention to self-harm?

We know that some people who express their feelings on social media don’t expect or want people to respond or intervene, whilst others hope that someone will reach out to help them.  And then there are those who see the posts and would like some guidance on what to do.

Do people need more support to offer help to each other online? Would it be helpful for people to better understand the impact of what they post? Who, if anyone, is best placed to do this?

Social media

The role of social media platforms in looking out for their users is another complex area. Some offer ways to report concerns about others, which can lead to various interventions and/or offers of support. These are welcomed by some and vehemently opposed by others. Do these platforms have a responsibility to ensure the safety of their users? Is the answer yes, or is the platform merely a tool for people to use whichever way they choose?  Is it ever okay for social media platforms to do nothing for vulnerable users?

If someone in a café talked about their intention to self-harm, would it be okay for the café owner to overhear and do nothing? What if they talked about their intention to harm someone else? What should the customers sitting close by do? And what is the difference here between the online and offline environment?


There is also the question of the responsibility of support services in the online environment. Is it enough for organisations like Samaritans to wait for someone to contact us for help, or should we be actively reaching out?

At Samaritans, we raise awareness of our service and encourage people to contact us as well as actively reaching out to those who need us in the offline environment - this is a vital part of our work.

Posters increase the visibility of our services where people may need us. Our volunteers are at festivals and public events, raising awareness and offering people a chance to talk. Our outreach work includes working in a wide range of settings, including schools, homeless shelters, prisons, railway stations and hospitals. We also receive referrals from services such as GPs, police and mental health teams. However, are there different rules for the online and offline world? Is it ok for this to happen online? Does it make a difference who reaches out, where and when?   

The Individual

Does the responsibility lie solely with the individual who is struggling to cope? Any intervention offered online could invade privacy, or someone’s right to express themselves, so is it perhaps up to them to seek out help if and when they want it? If so, what happens if they’re afraid to do so, or don’t know where to turn? Is it better to offer them suppport and let them choose whether to respond, rather than not intervening at all? Without any offer of support or intervention, could they end up feeling ignored and even more isolated? 

The challenge is that this is very much a personal preference and different people will have different views, so where does this leave people and organisations that want to provide support?

The question of responsibility is not an easy one.

What do you think? Whose responsibility is it to offer support to others in the online environment? What responsibility do you think Samaritans has? And what would you like to see us doing online?

Share your views in the comments below or email

Jen Russell and Alison Hunter - Policy, Research and Development

Digital Futures blog #2: Harmful content online: to ban or not to ban?

20 May 2015

In the second part of our #digitalfutures blog, we look at the issues surrounding harmful online content. What do you think can be done? Tell us in the comments below, email us directly, or write your own blogs or tweets using the hashtag #digitalfutures and we will link to them on our website.

The issue

Online content that can be harmful to people who are struggling to cope is one of the major challenges in working to reduce suicide. While the existence of harmful content isn’t new, the internet has created a unique platform which allows anyone to publish information at the touch of a button. With the use of social media and email, information on the web can be distributed widely, rapidly and accessed long after publication.

Information on the web can take many forms across many different channels, and can be user generated (e.g. blogs, social media or forums) or non-user generated (e.g. websites or news articles). People at risk of being negatively affected by the content could be searching for it, or they may stumble across it accidentally.

Scale of the problem

At one end of the spectrum there is material online that is clearly designed to cause harm. We see this sometimes in suicide forums where people give advice about suicide, form suicide pacts or encourage others to self-harm or kill themselves. We know relatively little about the actual impact of this, but its harmful intent is clear.

At the other end of the scale, there is information on the web that wasn’t designed to be harmful but unfortunately can have that effect. Certain types of media coverage can sometimes fall into this category, where cases of suicide can be sensationalised, romanticised or provide detailed about suicide methods. Research demonstrates that young people, especially, are affected by these portrayals and there is an increased risk of imitational suicide when celebrity or famous suicides are reported. In addition to these extremes there is a whole host of content that falls somewhere in-between.

One of the difficulties in defining what is harmful is that people react differently to the information they see online. One person’s support network can be someone else’s ‘trigger’, and their response could change depending on how they are feeling that day.

So what can be done about this?

To focus on banning, restricting or removing harmful online content or attempting to police the web would be futile and ineffective. Many websites are hosted abroad and the range of differing international laws would mean that even if certain sites were banned in the UK it would be impossible to remove them from the web altogether. Blocking content would also drive support networks underground, increasing the stigma around the subject and who could decide which conversations should be banned anyway when there is such variation in what people find harmful?

That isn’t to say we don’t see a role for removing or moderating harmful information where possible and education will play a big role here. We need to learn more about the things that can make something harmful to someone, but also teach others about the impact their online contribution can have. We need to be helping people to look out for themselves and recognise when they might be vulnerable. There is also a role for helping people stay safe on the internet by showing them where to go for support and guiding them away from content that might be harmful .

What do you think about harmful content online? Are we on the right track? What do you think constitutes harmful content? And what could we do to try and reduce the effects it can have on people?

Share your views in the comments below or email

Jen Russell and Alison Hunter - Policy, Research and Development

Digital Futures blog #1: Suicide reduction online: opportunities, challenges and a whole host of unknowns

11 May 2015

This is the first of a series of blogs as part of our #digitalfutures consultation. We will use these to share our thoughts and views on some of the challenges and opportunities for suicide reduction online and hope that by writing these, we’ll spark discussion and debate which will inform the development of Samaritans’ services in the future. We want to hear from you! You can comment below, email us directly, or write your own blogs or tweets using the hashtag #digitalfutures and we will link to a selection on our website.

The internet is unique because it is so easy for people to create and share information. Within minutes, new and potentially harmful content can be created, replicated and shared all around the world via social media, chat rooms and forums. The speed at which information can be shared is incredible, but when the content is harmful, it is also potentially dangerous. Internet-related suicides have been reported in the media and in academic research and sadly, they are unsurprising. Unregulated ‘support’ websites and forums can act as echo chambers where negative views are reinforced. Malicious individuals can prey on people when they are at their lowest and there is a real risk of imitational behaviour and suicide contagion, particularly following a high-profile suicide. On the other hand, online communities can help make people feel safe and supported, providing a sense of belonging which they may not have in their offline lives.

We aim to reduce suicide by decreasing feelings of distress and crisis that can lead to suicide; by increasing access to support for people struggling to cope; by reducing the risk of suicide in specific settings and groups, and by influencing governments and other agencies to take action to reduce suicide. Our challenge now is to bring these impacts to bear in the online world.

Some people will find it easier to reach out for support online rather than in person or over the phone. Whether they look for support from professional services or charities such as Samaritans, or from other communities and individuals, going online can increase social connectedness which is a well-known buffer against suicide. The internet can also provide helpful information, advice and guidance that can be accessed easily and discreetly. Technology can offer innovative and clever ways to help people share, understand and manage their feelings as well as having the potential to be used to identify and reach out to people who might be in distress. It gives an array of options for developing new ways to provide support to people who need it – the question is, what should Samaritans do?

Internet users are people with different needs, expectations and experiences of being online. There is no “one size fits all” for providing support in the online environment. Everyone is different. But what does that mean for us? For example, some people choose to share their feelings online because they feel it’s a safe space with minimal risk of intervention, whereas others will be hoping that if they talk about how they are feeling online, someone will reach out to them. We need to understand these differences to be able to maximise support and minimise harm, and the best way we can do this is by listening to people’s views.

We’ve done a literature review of some of the most recent research in this area. You can read this here. Based on the evidence and our experience at the moment we think the main challenges are:

  1. People are spending more of their lives online and therefore expect/want to be able to access support services online
  2. There are a lack of safe spaces for vulnerable/suicidal people online to discuss their feelings and seek support and a risk of that they can be exploited, bullied or harassed
  3. There is a wealth of suicide-related content online which can be dangerous when encountered by vulnerable individuals
  4. High-profile suicides increase suicide-related content online and can lead to triggering/contagion and an increase in suicidal behaviour
  5. Not enough is known about people who are suicidal and are online so we aren’t sure exactly how to help

We already have some ideas ourselves and we will post these soon but we wanted to ask you now.

What do you think are the main challenges? What have we missed? What support would you like to see available? Please join in the discussion and help shape Samaritans’ digital future.

Jen Russell and Alison Hunter - Policy, Research and Development