Technology can be a force for good when it comes to helping college students cope with a personal crisis.

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Cyber-bulling, sexting and other dangers of technology have long made parents and educators worry. But cell phones aren’t all bad — they can also be effective tools for helping vulnerable young people connect with others and find support from their peers.

Yik Yak, an app that’s popular on college campuses, has gotten a bad rap because its anonymity can encourage gossip, bullying and even personal threats. But, as NPR reports, some students are using Yik Yak to reach out to peers who express suicidal thoughts.

At the College of William & Mary in Virginia, according to NPR’s story, someone recently posted a message of despair to the app: “I want to turn my emotions off. There’s very little left for me to be happy about and it’s only a matter of time before those things fade too.”

Soon, several people chimed in, encouraging the poster to seek professional help and leaving messages like, “You are loved. Please don’t do this.”

Facebook also is taking a more pro-active approach to suicide prevention. As Education Lab reported earlier this year, the company is partnering with a group at the University of Washington to develop messages that users can send to peers who appear to be in distress.

Illustration by Donna Grethen / Op Art
Illustration by Donna Grethen / Op Art

Meanwhile, a growing body of research suggests online messaging may be an effective way to get students to curb binge drinking. Studies from Yale, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Newcastle in Australia have found that personalized messages delivered online or via text message have helped students reduce their drinking by as much as 13 percent, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The approaches vary from study to study, but they typically begin by surveying students to identify heavy drinkers and then sending those individuals personalized messages that include information on how their consumption compares to the rest of their peers and how much money they spend on alcohol.

Approximately 1,800 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year as a result of unintentional alcohol-related injuries, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Four of five college students drink alcohol, the institute says, but a separate study finds underage alcohol use and binge drinking appear to be on a gradual decline.