Mental & Emotional Health
Facebook and Diagnoses of Illness
Like it or not, social media is among the most common ways people communicate worldwide. And while that has attracted some criticism, researchers say that Facebook updates might help in understanding the onset and early years of mental illness.
“Facebook is hugely popular and could provide us with a wealth of data to improve our knowledge of mental health disorders such as depression and schizophrenia,” says Dr Becky Inkster, the study’s lead-author, from the Department of Psychiatry at Cambridge University. “Its reach is particularly broad, too, stretching across the digital divide to traditionally hard-to-reach groups including homeless youth, immigrants, people with mental health problems, and seniors.”
The findings were published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry.
Over a billion people worldwide use Facebook daily – one in seven of the global population – and social media use is increasing at three times the rate of other internet use. Evidence suggests that 92% of adolescents use the site daily and disclose considerably more about themselves online than offline.
Dr Michal Kosinski, co-author from Stanford Graduate Business School, adds that Facebook data tends to be more reliable than offline self-reported information, while still reflecting an individual’s offline behaviors. It also enables researchers to measure content that is difficult to assess offline, such as conversation intensity, and to reach sample sizes previously unobtainable.
Status updates, shares and likes can provide a wealth of information about users, they say. A previous study of 200 US college students over the age of 18 years found that one in four posted status updates showing depressive-like symptoms.
By analyzing the language, emotions and topics used in status updates, the researchers say that it may be possible to look for symptoms or early signs of mental illness. Even photographs might provide new insights; Facebook is the world’s largest photo sharing website, with some 350 million photos uploaded daily, and automated picture analysis of emotional facial expressions might offer unique representations of offline behaviors.
Studies have shown that social networks can have both positive and negative effects on user’s emotions. Being ‘unfriended’ can elicit negative emotions, but even an individuals’ news feed, which reports what their friends are up to, can affect their mood: one study found that a reduction of the amount of positive content displayed by friends led to an increase in negative status updates by users, and vice-versa. Other research has shown that some people with mental health disorders report positive experiences of social media, suggesting that Facebook might be harnessed to offer people support. People with schizophrenia and psychosis, for example, have reported that social networking sites helped them socialize and did not worsen their symptoms.