Social Media and Mental Illness: Can Instagram & Facebook Predict Depression & Narcissism?

Can the words we type and filters we use on social media really predict if we’re depressed or narcissistic? It’s looking that way…

The latest evidence? Researchers from Stony Brook University and University of Pennsylvania developed an algorithm that can accurately predict future depression by analyzing the words a person uses on Facebook posts.

In fact, the findings suggest that four specific words are strong indicators of a future depression diagnosis.

‘Linguistic Red Flags’

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used a newly developed algorithm to spot “linguistic red flags” that could signal depression.

“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.” (1)

The 4 Warning Words

In study of nearly 1,2000 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

The Social Media-Mental Illness Connection

Other research focuses on filter selection. As it turns out, the Instagram filter someone chooses can actually clue us into their 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. (2)

The study examined more than 40,000 Instagram posts from 166 subjects. Researchers first identified study participants who were previously diagnosed with depression. Next, they used machine-learning tools to identify patterns in the people’s posts. It turns out there were differences between how depressed people and non-depressed people posted.

Those folks who were depressed tended to use filters less frequently than those who weren’t depressed. And when they did use filters, the most popular one was “Inkwell,” which turns photos black and white. Their photos were also more likely to contain a face in them. In contrast, non-depressed Instagrammers were partial to the “Valencia” image filter, which lightens photos up.

This isn’t the first time researchers examined the role social media plays in mental health. As social media continues to become more engrained in our society (when’s the last time you spent an entire day away from Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Snapchat?), its role in our mental wellbeing is being studied, too. And some of the findings are, well, troubling. Let’s break down the role social media plays in mental illness.

Social Media and Depression

Social media can exacerbate feelings of depression. In fact, one study found that the more social platforms people are actively engaged on, the more likely they’ll feel depressed and anxious. (3) People who stuck with two or less platforms experienced a decreased risk of depression and anxiety compared to those engaging with seven to 11 different platforms, even after controlling for other issues that could contribute to mental health illness and total time spent on the platforms.

Though seven platforms sounds like a lot, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn add up to seven. Throw in a dating app like Tinder or social chat apps like Kik and WeChat, and it becomes easy to see how someone could be on that many platforms.

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. (4) 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.

via Social Media and Mental Illness: Can Instagram & Facebook Predict Depression & Narcissism?