Social media gets a bad rap for being this online portal that kind of catapults you into the digital versions of other people’s lives. And, sure, when you’re constantly scrolling through filtered images of the most epic travel destinations, sweet wedding engagements, and work promotion announcements, it’s normal to feel even the tiniest bit salty if, in your opinion, life isn’t adding up in the same way it is for your high school valedictorian. But while it’s true that social media is a stomping ground for comparison, have you ever thought about what your social media says about you? According to new research, the types of memes you re-post, the status updates you set, and the tone of voice you take on in the comments section of other people’s uploads can say a lot about your mental health. Obviously you can't, by any means, diagnose yourself (or anyone, for that matter) with a mental health issue simply based on what's being put out into cyberspace via Facebook or Twitter, but science says context clues on these platforms could be telling, and honestly, it's a fascinating concept.
I realize I tend to report more on the downsides of your favorite apps than the positives associated with these platforms, and while I promise there are some good aspects to social media, what can I say? Science doesn’t lie, my friends, and new research says it’s not what you post, but how you post it. In other words, the content you’re posting, and the emotional connection to those images and phrases, could potentially be mirroring a mental health issue that needs to be addressed offline, according to new research published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Again, though, this new information is not suggesting that assessing your social media outlets is a surefire way to self-diagnose or determine that a friend or loved one is struggling with a mental health issue — however, it very well could be a significant piece of the puzzle. Basically, don’t jump to conclusions if you resonate with a moody lyric once in a while, but perhaps take notice if you find yourself gravitating more toward negative content over positive feeds.
In the study, a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Stony Brook University found that they could predict a person's risk of developing depression just by paying close attention to their social media activity. It might sound like a stretch, but as per ScienceDaily, H. Andrew Schwartz, senior author of the study, explained why this idea makes sense: He said in a statement that it’s easier for experts like himself to pick up on the physical signs of mental health issues like anxiety or depression, than it is for doctors to see these psychological shifts happening in real time — which makes sense, right? Through the algorithm Schwartz and his colleagues developed, however, they were able to accurately predict a risk of developing depression in social media users, all based on very specific details, such as hostility and hints of loneliness, the use of words like "tears" and "feelings," and how often the person wrote from a first-person perspective.
According to ScienceDaily, the experiment took place over six years, during which time the researchers studied a connection between language, and the feelings someone might be quietly enduring. Johannes Eichstaedt, an author of the study from the University of Pennsylvania, explained in a statement that depression seems to coincide with a shift in how someone uses their social media accounts. In order to figure out how these platforms might be related to someone's mental health, the researchers analyzed the social media behaviors of roughly 1,200 participants, who gave the scientists consent to browse their Facebook statuses, as well as their electronic medical records. In the end, the researchers concluded it was possible to predict a future diagnosis of depression as early as three months prior to a clinical diagnosis, all based on how a person's social media content was associated with various indicators of depression, and how frequently they posted this type of content.
So, from a social media user's perspective, the concept of being able to spot signs of depression through your activity on these platforms is pretty mind-blowing — but it's also really valuable for doctors and professionals in the space. According to Robert Glatter, M.D., an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health (who was not involved in the current study), the reason why this type of research is so groundbreaking is because it "demonstrates the value of language analysis in social media feeds," and how your account, as well as the accounts of your loved ones, could play a major role in helping doctors diagnose and treat patients, particularly those who might be unwilling to seek treatment otherwise.
"Words are powerful, and reflect our inner thoughts and deepest feelings," Glatter tells Elite Daily. "At the same time, they may also hide, or even reveal clues about unexpressed feelings of anxiety and depression."
Personally, half the time I’m scrolling through social media, I’ll like a post that resonates with me at the time, and move on to the next post without a second thought. But it’s absolutely true that, to an extent, what you post does represent what you’re feeling. For example, when I first started battling my eating disorder, I was drawn to accounts that posted about dieting programs, and showed photos of women with unrealistic body types. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but my behavior on social media was a reflection of what I was going through mentally.
So what should you be looking out for in your own, or even in your loved one's social media posts? Mental health counselor Dr. Danielle Forshee, LLC says attention-seeking content like selfies, posts about how miserable a person feels, how sad they are, etc., can all be potential red flags. “Whenever someone is frequently posting content to social media that has to do with their negative emotional status — it is a red flag,” Forshee tells Elite Daily over email. And if you’re regularly reaching out to, and relying on friends on social media for serious life advice, Forshee adds that this might indicate a) that it's time to take a social media break, and b) that you might want to consider speaking with a professional. "This behavior is an indicator that you are having significant difficulty knowing how to manage emotions, conflict, and communication with important people in your life," she explains.
If you or someone you know is currently struggling with a mental health issue, and the signs are there on social media, don't hesitate to reach out to a counselor or other professional who can help. For more resources, check out Talkspace.com, or BetterHelp.com.