Facebook updates can help understand and potentially treat mental health problems

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In a paper newly published in Lancet Psychiatry, researchers find that Facebook updates, ‘likes’ and even photos could help understand and potentially treat mental health disorders.

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.

In the paper, researchers from the University of Cambridge discussed how social networking sites might be harnessed to provide data to help further understanding of the onset and early years of mental illness.

According to them, Facebook could provide a wealth of data to improve our knowledge of mental health disorders such as depression and schizophrenia.

In addition, its reach is particularly broad, stretching across the digital divide to traditionally hard-to-reach groups including homeless youth, immigrants, people with mental health problems, and seniors.

Researchers argued that Facebook might be used to help improve the detection of mental health factors.

Facebook data tends to be more reliable than offline self-reported information, while still reflecting an individual’s offline behaviours.

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.

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.

Automated picture analysis of emotional facial expressions might offer unique representations of offline behaviours.

Previous 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.

For example, 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 instance, have reported that social networking sites helped them socialize and did not worsen their symptoms.

The researchers suggest that the use of therapies based on users’ Facebook pictures and timelines could be trialed as possible ways to use online social networks to support individuals.

This might assist with accessing autobiographical memories, which can be impaired in conditions such as depression, and for improving cognition and mood with older patients, similar to offline therapies for early dementia.

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Citation: Inkster B, et al. (2016). A decade into Facebook: where is psychiatry in the digital age? Lancet Psychiatry, published online.
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