When you think of people exploiting Facebook, the specter of shadowy Russian trolls may come to mind. Now, researchers here in the United States are harnessing Facebook for good, and studying how changes in behavioral health manifest online.
In a recent paper in the journal Nature, co-first authors Dr. Sindhu Kiranmai Ernala from Georgia Tech and Dr. Michael Birnbaum of The Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health wanted to get a better sense of how young folks were using social media. Specifically, as psychotic symptoms from individuals receiving psychiatric care for schizophrenia were getting worse and what that might look like on a platform like Facebook.
Dr. Birnbaum sat down with Fox News and explained that psychiatry and behavioral healthcare is nearly entirely reliant on subjective self-report, but that social media may hold key objective signals for doctors.
“We are looking for objective signals and we believe that those signals are available in digital data like Facebook and search engine activity,” said Dr. Birnbaum . “Those signals are also available in the way people use their cell phones and the way people are communicating through speech, which can be analyzed in a very objective way.”
Dr. Birnbaum broke down the data, and said they found the way that patients used Facebook changed drastically as psychotic symptoms worsened prior to hospitalization.
“We identified, first, significant changes in the language-use during the relapse, specifically, young folks were more likely to swear, and were more likely to use anger-related words on their Facebook posts,” explained Dr. Birnbaum. “Second, they were less likely to talk about things like work, friendships, and relationships. Third, they were more likely to tag each other and, fourth, they were more likely to send and respond to friend requests.”
Dr. Birnbaum noted that it would be beneficial for people who hold or have access to all of this kind of information, like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, to participate in the conversation.
“I think there are clearly some ethical considerations and there are some folks who may or may not have an individual’s best interest in mind,” said Birnbaum. “That being said, the data is out there, and there are really important opportunities to improve what we do, and it requires a lot of discussion and conversation with all stakeholders, including the folks who are responsible for developing and creating the content of Facebook.”
The study’s results showed that social media holds promise for gathering objective, non-invasive, easily accessed data. The data, in turn, could ultimately help prevent costly emergency room visits, psychiatric hospitalizations, family burden, medical complications, and more importantly suicide.
“This is an opportunity to digitalize the data, and obtain more objective information about the possibility of an upcoming relapse, said Dr. Birnbaum. “We have a real opportunity to intervene even earlier, which could prevent the relapse from happening.”
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To learn more about the study listen to Dr. Michael Birnbaum’s full interview above.
Emily DeCiccio is a reporter and video producer for Fox News Digital Originals. Tweet her @EmilyDeCiccio
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