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- Many studies point towards social media having a negative impact on our mental health. However, new research has shown that the way people use social media could be an indicator that they may develop a mental health condition like depression. Everyone portrays a biased image of themselves on social media, so thorough assessments will still be required.
Various studies and news reports have linked social media use to mental health issues such as depression in the past few years.
Facebook has been around for just over a decade, and children are now growing up with many different social media accounts that even millennials struggle to keep up with.
However, it seems that social media can actually be helpful in idenifying already existing mental health problems.
A new study published this week found that an algorithm could accurately guess the people who had depression just by looking at their Instagram feed.
However, to understand how this works, we first need to understand what’s wrong with social media in the first place.
Problems arise on social media when we compare our lives to others.
We show the “best” version of lives online, and we often forget that everyone is doing the same.
Psychotherapist Allison Abrams told Business Insider that people who already struggle with depression or anxiety, or who are not satisfied with their life circumstances, are most vulnerable to this affect social media can have. However, this very much depends on how you use sites like Facebook.
“If you use social media primarily to maintain long distance friendships or to stay connected socially, this will be less likely to apply to you,” Abrams said. “On the other hand, if you spend most of your time scrolling through your newsfeed checking out other people’s lives and compare them to your own, you become more at risk of developing (or having worsening) symptoms of depression or anxiety. This is especially so in those with low self esteem.”
She added that it’s only human to compare ourselves to other people, but social media is the perfect vehicle to do this on a more intense level.
For example, couples post smiling photos of themselves being ever so in love, but you rarely see a status update about all the arguments they’re having. Your friends will post selfies when they feel good about how they look, but you’ll rarely see someone post a photo of themselves that they don’t like.
“Others’ lives are right there on our screen to see,” Abrams said. “Most are not posting the less attractive pictures or the less pleasant moments that we all experience.”
The biases and the different ways we all use social media makes the study of the psychology very convoluted. Psychiatrist Jean Kim calls our social media use a “human experiment in action” in a blog post on Psychology Today, because it is still a relatively new thing. Psychological research is struggling to keep up with how the way we interact with each other has rapidly evolved, and the long-term influences things like social media have on our mental health is not hugely understood because the time frame just isn’t there to support hypotheses.
However, there is a bulk of research that shows how our internet use could be having an impact, and this is being built on all the time. For instance, a study from 2016 surveyed 1,787 adults, and found that the people who used social media more often tended to have higher rates of depression.
Another study from 2013 found a casual link between Facebook use and unhappiness in young people. The researchers tested the wellbeing of people before and after using the site, to rule out the idea that people turn to Facebook when they feel bad, rather than feeling less happy as a result.
Of course there is also the other end of the spectrum. People who find it difficult to make friends in real life often find communities in forums or on internet games, where they find others who are like-minded and enjoy the same things as them. One study from 2002 found that online social interaction could actually increase self-esteem and feelings of social support, as well as decrease loneliness.
However, 2002 was arguably before social media was such a massive part of society. It was also five years before the first iPhone was released.
The anonymity online social interaction brings can also lead to trolling, which has become an increasing problem since the early 2000s. Using nameless accounts on Twitter, Reddit, and other forums, people have the ability to attack others behind the safety of a screen without repercussions. So every way you look at it, the internet is a mixed bag for conjuring up feelings.
However, it now seems social media can be used to diagnose depression.
This week, a widely covered study, published in the journal EPJ Data Science, found that individuals suffering from depression were more likely to post Instagram photos that were bluer, darker, and greyer. They also posted significantly fewer faces per photograph.
Nearly 44,000 photos were analysed in total from 166 accounts alongside the person’s mental history. About 50% of the participants had been diagnosed with depression over the last three years.
Among mentally healthy users, the most popular filter was Valencia, which adds warmth and brightness to photos. The depressed users were more likely to go for Inkwell, which is a black-and-white filter.
The team then trained the computer program to look out for “depressed” users by logging the majority of the photos along with the user’s corresponding mental health status. They then tested to see if the algorithm could accurately identify people with depression from their Instagram feeds. It correctly identified people with depression 70% of the time.
“We were able to observe these differences reliably, even when only looking at depressed users’ posts made prior to receiving a clinical diagnosis of depression,” said Andrew Reece, one of the authors of the study, in a blog post.
“These and other recent findings indicate that social media data may be a valuable resource for developing efficient, low-cost, and accurate predictive mental health screening methods.”
This isn’t the first time social media has been used as a predictor. One study from 2013 analysed how Twitter could be used as a tool for measuring and predicting major depression. The researchers analysed the postings of hundreds of Twitter users with depression, measuring their social engagement, emotion, language and linguistic styles, and mentions of antidepressants.
Individuals with depression were found to have “lowered social activity, greater negative emotion, high self-attentional focus, increased relational and medicinal concerns, and heightened expression of religious thoughts.”
The authors concluded that their findings could be “useful in developing tools for identifying the onset of major depression, for use by healthcare agencies; or on behalf of individuals, enabling those suffering from depression to be more proactive about their mental health.”
The authors of the recent study say they have not created a diagnostic tool, according to Buzzfeed, but a “proof-of-concept for a new way to help people” or a way to catch early warning signs of someone becoming depressed.
Abrams told Business Insider that it would actually be dangerous to diagnose a person based upon their social media use alone, without a thorough mental assessment.
“The APA (American Psychological Assoc) has very specific guidelines about diagnosing without examination in only very limited and rare circumstances,” she said. “I don’t believe this includes social media nor do I believe it should. Especially given the fact that most portray very biased versions of their lives.”