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Can Facebook uncover underlying mental disease?

An estimated 75% of 18-29 year olds use some kind of social networking medium, potentially providing a unique insight into social interactions (Image: CDC)

I came across a recently published study seeking to elucidate whether user's Facebook profiles can provide insight into potential mental illness. I believe this to be indeed an interesting concept and therefore thought this would be an interesting point of discussion. Considering that according to the authors, an estimated 75% of young adults (18-29) use some kind of social networking medium, the kind of information these sites potentially provide in terms of how people interact with others has great potential to reveal social behavior.

The authors state that social anhedonia, the diminished experience of positive emotion for social stimuli, is negatively related to extraversion and that this is a diagnostic component for a number of schizophrenia-spectrum disorders. To assess whether this type of behavior could be reflected on Facebook, the authors had a study group fill out a number of questionnaires to develop baseline behavior information. These questionnaires also assessed 'magical thinking' and other factors related to mental illness. They then assessed user's Facebook interactions to determine whether certain parameters could be related to these baseline scores.

Indeed, the study was able to relate behaviors such as social anhedonia and extraversion with certain types of Facebook characteristics. For instance, social anhedonia was related to a reduced number of Facebook friends and extraversion was able to "uniquely predict some participation variables...including number of friends, number of photos of oneself, and length of time since last communication with a friend." The study also assessed a number of other factors such as how much information participants chose to black out (information they wanted to conceal from researchers before providing Facebook data). Indeed, this was positively related to baseline magical ideation and perception aberration scores.

I would caution significantly when interpreting these results however. There are a number of limitations, and people's interactions with Facebook and other networking sites could substantially be influenced by a plethora of other factors that have nothing to do with social behavior. Such as concerns over privacy, technological know-how (despite the study population age of 18-29) or simple disinterest in this type of interaction. I have chosen to discuss this topic nevertheless because I believe there is still merit to this type of study. Facebook carries a substantial amount of private information, and for heavy users it may present as a sort of online journal. This type of information would certainly seem useful in the assessment of mental health; however, it will take further research to determine to what extent and how in particular this information can be useful.

I discussed a similar topic in a previous post as well: Facebook and social cognition: Is there a relationship?

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An estimated 75% of 18-29 year olds use some kind of social networking medium, potentially providing a unique insight into social interactions (Image: CDC)
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