Can social media really be used to predict mental illness such as depression or anxiety? It’s looking that way.

Researchers from Stony Brook University and University of Pennsylvania developed an algorithm that can predict future depression by analyzing the words a person uses on Facebook posts. In fact, four specific words have been identified as strong indicators of a future depression diagnosis.

“What people write in social media and online captures an aspect of life that’s very hard in medicine and research to access otherwise. It’s a dimension that’s relatively untapped compared to biophysical markers of disease,” says study author H. Andrew Schwartz, PhD, assistant professor of computer science at Stony Brook University. “Conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD, for example, you find more signals in the way people express themselves digitally.”

The 4 Warning Words

In study of nearly 12,000 people, researchers found indicators of depression included:

  • Words like “tears”and “feelings”
  • Use of more first-person pronouns like “I” and “me”
  • Mentions of hostility and loneliness

Another indicator has to do with filters, which can give clues into a user’s mental state. According to a study published in the journal EPJ Data Science, social media and mental illness are linked. And the images a person shares on Instagram (and the way they’re edited) could offer insight into signs of depression. The study examined more than 40,000 Instagram posts from 166 subjects. The people who were depressed tended to use filters less frequently. But when used the most popular one was “Inkwell,” which turns photos black and white. In contrast, non-depressed Instagrammers were partial to the “Valencia” image filter, which lightens photos up.

Social Media and Depression

Social media can exacerbate feelings of depression. It seems the more social platforms people are actively engaged on, the more likely they’ll feel depressed and anxious. In a small study of young people in the UK, researchers identified Instagram as the social media platform most associated with negative feelings, including depression, anxiety, loneliness, trouble sleeping and bullying, with Snapchat following closely behind. Both of these platforms focus heavily on images, which can promote feelings of inadequacy and encourage low self-esteem as people compare themselves to others.

Another study found that Facebook use negatively impacted how people felt moment-to-moment and also how satisfied they were with their lives. The more often people used Facebook over a two-week period, the more their life satisfaction levels declined, no matter why they were using Facebook or how big their Facebook network was.

Social Media and Loneliness

Although it’s much easier now to keep in touch with people, loneliness is on the rise, particularly amongst older adults. An AARP study of aged 45 and older found that 35% of them were lonely, and 13% of lonely respondents felt “they have fewer deep connections now that they keep in touch with people using the Internet.”

Just because we’re liking friends’ statuses or checking out their vacation photos doesn’t mean we feel connected to them; in fact, we might even be spending less time on activities that build in-person networks, like volunteering, pursuing a hobby or getting involved in organizations we care about.

Benefits of Social Media for Mental Health

Because of the increase in mental health issues relating to social media use, researchers are now using it for positive gain. Brad Ridout, Ph.D., and Andrew Campbell, Ph.D., from the University of Sydney in Australia, discovered a new, encouraging use for social media networks. The conducted a study and found that social media apps and websites could help young adults and teenagers battle mental health issues, a population who experiences half of its non-fatal deaths from these diseases and disorders.

“When seeking information around mental health, many people go online as a first step, and young people are no different,” Ridout told Healthcare Analytics News through an email. “However, over the past decade we have seen that social media has overtaken more trustworthy health websites and services as the preferred avenue for online help seeking among young people, so we wanted to see whether researchers and health professionals had started to [utilize] benefits and appeal that social networking sites (SNSs) have for youth.”

Not only did the young people who participated “find SNS-based interventions highly usable, engaging and supportive,” but these initial studies helped reduce depressive symptoms and provided greater mental-health awareness. “Features such as ‘liking’ are great, as they allow for engagement and signs of support even when people don’t necessarily have anything to contribute to a conversation,” Ridout explained.

The most surprising result from the review was pulled from a study that incorporated peer moderators. “One of the most powerful aspects of peer support is talking to role models who have successfully dealt with similar challenges to those you are facing,” Ridout said. “This brings benefit not only to the person receiving support, but to the person giving it, as they are reminded of the successful approaches they have taken while paying it forward to others.”

Final thoughts

Although social media has been associated with mental illnesses it can play a positive role in mental health, too, particularly when used to guide people to resources or find help. Finding balance between yourself and social media allows you to enjoy what social media has to offer without having it take over your life and mental state.