General News Research Technology — 03 November 2016

WHAT you post and “like” on Facebook could provide a window to understanding — and potentially treating — mental health issues, experts said today.

bigstock-Apple-iPhone-with-Social-Media-22890494The language people use, the emotions they convey and the topics they discuss can help medics spot disorders including depression and schizophrenia, The Sun reports.

Researchers at the Cambridge and Stanford universities believe better analysing behaviours on the social network could help diagnose and support those with mental health illnesses.

One in seven people across the world use Facebook on a daily basis — and social media use is growing three times faster than any other internet use.

Evidence suggests 92 per cent of teens use the site to share much more online than they would dream of doing so offline.

Writing in Lancet Psychiatry, Dr Becky Inkster, lead researcher of the new study, said: “Facebook is hugely popular and could provide us with a wealth of data to improve our knowledge of mental health disorders such as depression and schizophrenia.

“It’s reach is particularly broad, too, stretching across the digital divide to traditionally hard-to-reach groups including homeless youth, immigrants, people with mental health problems, and seniors.”

The photos people share can also play a role, the team argued.

Analysing emotional facial expressions could help experts predict a person’s offline behaviour.

The value of examining people’s behaviour online lies, in part in the fact we tend to be more honest on social networking sites.

Dr Michal Kosinski, co-author of the new research, from Stanford, said information posted online tends to be more reliable than that given in person, offline.

And, it enables researchers to measure specific content that can be hard to judge in a real world setting — such as the intensity of a conversation.

The new findings build on past studies, which have shown social networks can impact both positively and negatively on a person’s emotions.

Being “unfriended” can provoke negative emotions, and even a news feed can affect mood.

One study found the more positive content displayed by friends the better a person viewing it feels, and vice versa.

As well as helping to identify the people at risk, researchers hope to harness the power of Facebook to support those suffering mental health issues.Studies have shown people already diagnosed do report positive experiences of support via the site.

Those battling schizophrenia and psychosis, for example, have said it helps them socialise, and did not make their symptoms worse.

The researchers said the use of therapies based on a person’s Facebook photos and timelines could be trialled as a way to support people at risk.

Dr Inkster said: “Facebook relationships may help those with reduced self-esteem and provide companionship for individuals who are socially isolated.

“We know that socially isolated adolescents are more likely to suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts, so these online stepping stones could encourage patients to reform offline social connections.”

Facebook already allows users who are worried about a friend’s risk of suicide to report the post.

However, the use of social networking sites in the context of mental health and young people raises potential ethical dilemmas.

Dr David Stillwell, from Cambridge University, said: “People are uneasy at the idea of having their social media monitored and their privacy infringed upon, so this is something that will need to be handled carefully.”

The experts said while much of the research is in its very early stages, it is an exciting avenue.

Dr Inkster added: “Although it isn’t clear yet how social networking sites might best be used to improve mental health care, they hold considerable promise for having profound implications that could revolutionise mental health care.”

This piece by Lizzie Parry was first seen on ‘The Sun’ on October 27, 2016.


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