Most people use MySpace to interact with friends online by sending messages, sharing photos and details about their lives, such as their favorite movies or relationship status.
Del Mar resident Jeff Kobayashi uses the social networking site for a much more serious purpose - suicide prevention.
By evaluating user profiles for specific criteria, such as color or facial expression, Kobayashi can identify with 92 percent accuracy which users may be depressed or suicidal.
"It's a very unbiased, academic way of approaching a very important issue," said Kobayashi, who conducted a study of 150 MySpace profiles for his master's in communications thesis at San Diego State University last year. He presented his findings to the National Communication Association, and the study is being considered for publication in a communications journal.
But Kobayashi is not stopping there; he's taking his research to the very real world of teenage suicide.
He founded OnLife, a nonprofit organization pioneering suicide prevention online by using the power of social networking sites such as MySpace.
"It's going to change, I hope, the way suicide may be prevented or identified," Kobayashi said.
Traditionally, suicide prevention begins with a referral; either from someone reaching out for help or a friend sharing concerns about another friend, he said.
Unfortunately, those who know someone is considering suicide do not always share that information with prevention specialists - 136 children between the ages of 10 and 19 committed suicide in San Diego County between 1998 and 2007.
Referrals also mean experts can't intervene until contacted.
OnLife reverses that process.
"I'm on the offensive looking for them," Kobayashi said, "rather than waiting for them to come to me."
Kobayashi plans to work with high schools to use this new tool, beginning with his alma matter, Torrey Pines High School. In cooperation with the school, Kobayashi will scan students' MySpace pages twice a month and alert the appropriate staff or counselor of any student triggering all the criteria. Those students could then be directed to helpful resources.
Even if the student is not suicidal, they may be going through a rough time and a helping hand could do a world of good.
While the suicide prevention community has been receptive to OnLife, Kobayashi said it is challenging to convey to adults how important social networking sites are to the youth who use them.
"It seems a bit foreign to them," he said. The best analogy he uses is a person's profile is as much an expression of who they are as what clothes they wear, and therefore is vital information that should not be ignored.
The OnLife system isn't perfect - not every student has a MySpace page and not all MySpace pages are public. But with 300 million MySpace accounts worldwide, there is a huge potential to affect millions of people, Kobayashi said.
"That's exciting," he said. "I hope that it can maybe save someone's life."
Concerned friends or family members can call the San Diego County Crisis Line at (800) 479-3339, the National Line at (800) 273-TALK or visit Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program at
For more information about OnLife, visit
Keep the connection clear
While Kobayashi cautioned parents and friends against trying to diagnose depression from social networking pages, he said there are a few warning signs to look for in a person's behavior, including:
- Persistent sad or empty mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness or guilt
- Loss of interest in usual activities or isolation
- Excessive alcohol and/or drug use
- Disturbances in eating and sleeping patterns
- Irritability, anxiety of feeling out of control
- Recurrent thoughts or talk of death or suicide