Is Your Social Media Behavior A Sign Of A Psychiatric Disorder? New Data Says 'Maybe'

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Social media is one of the primary ways we interact with others in the modern age, yet it's largely left out of conversations surrounding mental health and the diagnosis of psychiatric behaviors. 

When diagnosing mental illness and psychiatric disorders, psychiatrists rely heavily upon how individuals interact with those around them.

However, this information is typically gathered from self-reporting and observations made by family and friends, which makes it somewhat unreliable and hard to analyze.

In the digital age, social interaction occurs online just as frequently — if not more frequently — as does is in person. Thus, social media plays a crucial role in assessing someone’s mental health. 

Of course, social media behavior alone should never be used to diagnose a patient.

A qualified clinician will make a diagnosis only after they have met with and spent time analyzing the symptoms and behaviors presented. Social media use may become a new and highly effective tool in this analysis. 

To learn more about the behavior patterns of those with psychiatric diagnoses, we looked at compelling new data and spoke with a psychologist for insight. 

Analysis of social media behavior patterns can help diagnose psychiatric disorders 

Research into online behaviors and psychiatric health has started to draw key psychological conclusions from how people present themselves on social media. 

A study published in NJP Schizophrenia assessed millions of Facebook messages and images belonging to voluntary participants. 

The participants were already clinically diagnosed with schizophrenia spectrum disorders (SSD) or mood disorders (MD). The study also included a control group of healthy volunteers (HV) to further determine accuracy. 

The participants were aged between 15 and 35, and their social media activity took place in the 18 months prior to hospitalization. This revealed key insights about what behavioral patterns are visible at different stages of the disorders. 

By analyzing patterns within the colelcted data, machine learning algorithms correctly identified:

The SDD group with an accuracy of 52%

The MD group with an accuracy of 57% 

The HV group with an accuracy of 56%

As these algorithms are developed further and tested on larger data sets, this could revolutionize how psychiatric disorders are diagnosed and monitored. 

We spoke to Ashley Seeger, a psychotherapist who works with couples and individuals in private practice, about how social media can inform psychiatric therapy

Recognizing the prevalence of social media in today’s world, Seeger is already using these platforms in her own work with clients.

“I believe that talking with clients about their relationship with social media is very helpful when diagnosing mental illness,” she says. “I ask clients not only what platforms they use but also what their feelings are about being seen and what it feels like to see others react to them.”

These algorithms can further enhance the work of therapists like Seeger in order to better understand client behaviors. 

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What psychiatric disorders look like online

The research study revealed patterns of online behavior within each of the groups that varied from condition to condition. As each patient approached hospitalization, signs of a psychiatric disorder became increasingly apparent. 

As researchers continue to understand these signals, social media activity could even be used to intervene in the early stages of psychiatric disorders in order to mitigate their effects.

Some interesting patterns revealed that the MD group was more likely to post photos containing more blues and fewer yellows, MD and SSD groups were far more likely to use curse words and anger-related language, and the SSD groups were more likely to use internet slang and abbreviations. 

Seeger has also noticed unique patterns in the online behaviors of her clients, particularly those with dissociative disorders. 

“Clients who are dissociative, or who have troubled attachment styles, can have difficulty feeling their feelings in real-time,” she says. “However, when viewing their lives through the lens of social media they begin to sense what feelings might be inside of themselves.”

“I have found that it is a wonderful back door into exploring feelings that are remote, removed or muted.”

As more and more people lean into social media as a means of articulating and expressing themselves, these platforms can possibly tell us more than we know about ourselves. 

That said, these new developments play into the concerns many already have about privacy and the role of social media in society. 

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Are we sacrificing privacy for the sake of psychological advancements?

Seeger tells us that therapists have a duty of care to clients and need to be aware of boundaries when examining social media activity. 

“I don’t believe that therapists should view their client’s social media outside of a session,” she says. “I believe this is not only intrusive but also misleading as social media only contains what the client wishes others to see — it is not reality.”

By reducing psychiatric analysis down to an algorithm, we may also leave those with psychiatric disorders vulnerable to involuntary analysis online. 

Already social media sites have a huge amount of control over our online experience and algorithms, like the one created in the study, that could exacerbate this effect. 

The creators of the study have stressed that this algorithm should only be used in agreement with patients. 

The hope is that the research will give patients more power to provide their doctors with evidence and examples of behavior in order to better advocate for themselves.

Seeger agrees. She tells us that this should be a joint effort between a client and their doctor or therapist. 

“I believe strongly in viewing my client’s posts together in order to discover their uses of social media as well as the meanings tied up in how they wish to be viewed by ‘others.’”

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Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment.