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

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Social media mental illness - Dr. Axe

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.

Social media and mental illness - Dr. Axe

And another study found that Facebook use negatively impacted how people felt moment-to-moment and also how satisfied they were with their lives. The more often people used Facebook over a two-week period, the more their life satisfaction levels declined, no matter why they were using Facebook or how big their Facebook network was. (5) Though the study looked at just two weeks, it’d be interesting to see what the cumulative life satisfaction toll would be over months and years.

Social Media and Loneliness

Though we have more ways than ever to keep in touch with people, including social media, loneliness is on the rise, particularly amongst older adults. An AARP study of aged 45 and older found that 35 percent of them were lonely, and that 13 percent of lonely respondents felt “they have fewer deep connections now that they keep in touch with people using the Internet.” (6)

Just because we’re liking friends’ statuses or checking out their vacation photos doesn’t mean we feel connected to them; in fact, we might even be spending less time on activities that build in-person networks, like volunteering, pursuing a hobby or getting involved in organizations we care about. In fact, researchers are calling it a loneliness epidemic — it increases the risk factor of premature death as much or even more than being obese. (7)

It’s not just adults who are affected, either. One well-known study found that, even after controlling for factors like sex, age and perceived social support, the larger an adolescent’s Facebook network, the more diurnal cortisol they produced. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, and elevated levels of it can lead to anxiety and sleep disorders, among other things. (8) The investigators theorized that the number of friends people have on Facebook is positive up to a certain point, but then reach a point of diminishing returns, where higher stress and cortisol levels take over.

Social Media and Narcissism

Social media also provides a platform for narcissists and people with narcissistic tendencies. Interestingly, one small study from 2010 found that narcissistic people with low self-esteem were more active on Facebook. (9) That’s in line with another study that found that being addicted to Facebook often predicted narcissistic behavior and low self-esteem. (10) It’s likely that these people use social media to “feed the ego” and also to tamper down feelings of low self-esteem with online validation. (11)


Warning Signs of a Social Media Problem

Obviously, not everyone who uses social media has a mental health issue. Some people really just enjoy getting the latest cat videos or seeing photos of their grandchildren. But being too reliant on social media can be a problem for some, and can make mental health problems, like depression or anxiety, even worse. Could you have a social media problem?

Here are some warning signs:

  • You’re addicted to your smartphone ­— also known as nomophobia — and, in particular, checking social media platforms.
  • You keep in touch with family and friends by commenting on their status updates, but you can’t remember the last time you spoke with one of them on the phone or even — gasp! — saw them in person.
  • Checking your social media platforms is the last thing you do before turning in at night and the first thing you do upon waking.
  • You feel panicky if several hours have gone by and you haven’t checked your social media accounts.
  • You obsess over the best way to “capture the moment” so you can post about it.
  • You’re often comparing yourself to people online.
  • You get upset if people haven’t commented on your updates and might even take down posts that haven’t garnered a significant reaction from others.
  • Whether you’re waiting in line at the bank, are on the toilet or stuck at a red light, you find yourself “just checking in” on social media platforms no matter where you are or how much time you have.

Social Media and Mental Illness: How to Find Balance

Did you recognize yourself in the warning signs? It might be time to find some balance in your social media life. It’s unrealistic to think that we’re going to cut ourselves off of social media entirely, especially because all of the effects aren’t negative. After all, it’s fantastic to find a community that loves long-haired Chihuahuas as much as you do, or seek out information on difficult topics, including mental health issues, from people who have experienced it already.

There are even websites where you can connect with licensed therapists to seek out care from the comfort of your own home.

And there could be a bright side to all of this, according to the researchers who identified the link between people’s filter choice and depression. It could help target and better aid depressed people in underserved communities. “This computational approach, requiring only patients’ digital consent to share their social media histories, may open avenues to care which are currently difficult or impossible to provide,” the researchers say.

Here are some steps to take to develop a healthier relationship with social media:

Get an alarm clock. One way to get a handle on your social media use is to use an actual alarm clock. So many of us keep our phones in arm’s reach at night because we use it as an alarm clock. But that usually means late-night scrolling and checking to see what happened overnight before we’re even out of bed. Turn your phone off overnight and use an old-school alarm instead.

Barring that, keep your phone on airplane mode starting at least an hour before bedtime. Challenge yourself to see how long you can go in the mornings before turning it back on. Your alarm will work in airplane mode, but you won’t wake up to a social media assault of the senses.

Call and meet up with friends. It’s nice to “check in” with friends online, but if you have friends and family who you haven’t had a real conversation with in some time, give them a call or schedule a catch up to see them in person. Liking someone’s status can’t take the place of a real-life conversation. It’s also likely that, just like you curate what you share online, your friends and family are, too. They could be experiencing things that you wouldn’t know anything about because they aren’t posting publicly about them.

Remember that everything you see online isn’t real. Filters and self-editing and witty captions look great, but they don’t tell the whole story. While it can be tough not to compare yourself with others, remember that what you’re seeing on social media is just a tiny piece of someone’s life, and one that’s usually edited to look as great as possible. It’s not their entire reality.


The Psychology of Your News Feed

“It’s not just taking away our agency — to spend our attention and live the lives that we want; It’s changing the way that we have our conversations, it’s changing our democracy and it’s changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships we want with each other. And it affects everyone,” Tristan Harris, a former in-house ethicist at Google proclaimed on his TED Talk “How a Handful of Tech Companies Control Billions of Minds Every Day.” (12) Technology is designed to grab and keep our attention by understanding the science behind how our brains work, and it manipulates that. As Tristan states, technology is not neutral. The former Google ethicist urges us to consider an alternative where Facebook no longer attempts to keep us disconnected and absorbed in the internet and instead imagine a social media platform that helps you connect with your friends in real life.

Waking up to the harm these platforms are causing society, technology experts, including former Google and Facebook employees like Tristan, have united together to form the Center for Humane Technology. The group is planning a campaign called “The Truth About Tech,” which will aim to educate students, parents and teachers about depression as a side effect of heavy use of social media and other social media dangers. In addition to educating the youth, the team wants to provide resources for engineers who are concerned about the programs they are building by showing data on the health effects of different technologies and ways to make healthier products.

The group’s plans also include lobbying for laws to reduce the power of large tech companies. Two examples include a bill that would commission research on technology’s impact on children’s health and a bill that would prohibit the use of digital bots without identification. (13) While changing your social media habits must come from within yourself, more humane technology offers healthier ways to be able to use these apps and websites without constantly fighting off signals to keep you on the page, and it provides a brighter future for the mental health and stress levels of our children.


Final Thoughts on Social Media & Mental Illness

  • The filters someone uses on Instagram can signal whether or not they’re depressed.
  • Social media has been associated with mental illnesses ranging from depression and anxiety to loneliness and narcissism.
  • Checking in every few months on warning signs of a social media problem can help you keep yourself in check and make sure social media isn’t contributing to poor mental health.
  • Social media can play a positive role in mental health, too, particularly when used to guide people to resources or find help.
  • Finding balance between yourself and social media allows you to enjoy what social media has to offer without having it take over your life and mental state.

Happy scrolling!

Read Next: 15 Natural Anxiety Remedies


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