How Social Media Can Revolutionize Mental Health: Recap of December’s The Future Now: NEEDs
|Image courtesy of Flicker.
The past decade has seen a rise in the use of social media, allowing a chronical of daily interactions and major life events on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. As such, these platforms act as “archives of our lives,” as Dr. Munmun De Choudhury stated in her The Future Now: Neuroscience and Emerging Ethical Dillemas Series (NEEDs) talk in December. Dr. De Choudhury is an assistant professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, where she studies computational social science. At Tech, she leads the Social Dynamics and Wellbeing lab where members of her lab can regularly be found browsing social media websites, such as Reddit. However, unlike many graduate students who frequent social media websites during work hours, Dr. De Choudhury’s students are actually working. Dr. De Choudhury and her team search for patterns of activity on social media platforms that may shed light on psychological behavioral states.
|Figure 1. Recreation of figure used in
Dr. De Choudhury’s Future Now NEEDS talk
Dr. De Choudhury first addressed the potential uses of social media for diagnosis, both as a sensor and an intervention tool (Figure 1, top row). For example, she outlined a study where her team assessed language on Twitter to predict onset of major depressive disorder. After obtaining consent, her team analyzed the Twitter language of individuals previously diagnosed with clinical depression. Using this data, they developed a model to identify signs of depression which allowed for the creation of the first “social media depression index.” The model was successful, as it correlated highly with the prevalence of depression observed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and identified similar trends, such as gender differences and circadian patterns related to depression diagnosis.
|Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Social media can also be used as an intervention tool, to diagnose and treat individuals (Figure 1, column 2). Dr. De Choudhury’s team analyzed the Reddit Suicide subreddit to search for identifying features of conversations that were associated with suicidal ideation. These platforms can potentially provide an avenue for proactive intervention. Using social media as a diagnosis tool offers the possibility for intervention to millions more than currently have access to intervention techniques. Still, Dr. De Choudhury acknowledges that ethical challenges still must be addressed in her research. She commented on how a personalized risk assessment, which is individually tailored to each user’s need, can build trust between an individual and the online support he/she is receiving. This type of assessment is unlike current sources of social media suicide support, which flag posts potentially indicative of suicidal thoughts and connects the user with suicide prevention links. A more personalized support from social media could be beneficial, but the long-term implications of this trust on an inorganic substance, such as a social media platform, are unknown. As a society, are willing to trust a computer program to know when to intervene to save an individual’s life based solely on online comments? To answer this question, it is important to consider the implications of faults in the program, as computer detection programs rarely operate with 100% accuracy. For example, if the algorithm suggested a social media user was suicidal and automatically took intervention steps, the algorithm is now nudging a healthy individual to change their [online] behavior. A situation like this example would manipulate innate human behavior and has the potential to negatively alter a healthy individuals’ emotions. A less than 100% accurate program could also be detrimental if we solely defer to such algorithms for clinical diagnosis and intervention and they fail to detect a suicidal individual. Cases like this pose the question: What is society’s responsibility to social media and, conversely, what does social media owe society?
|Image courtesy of Pixabay.
Dr. De Choudhury then referred to her recent study where she identified that some individuals turn to social media as their main source of support, potentially due the stigma around seeking clinical support. She found that certain types of internet support, such as emotional support, are more helpful than other, more informative types of support. On social media, support often originates from other social media users— from strangers attempting to help each other heal. It is important to note that most individuals who are offering support through social media are not properly trained in how to do so. While their support may be motivated by a desire to help, this lack of formal clinical training could potentially cause more harm than good. These types are issues are raised in a NYT article, mentioning Dr. De Choudhury’s research, about the risks of using social media for these purposes.
|Image courtesy of Pexels.
The talk concluded with an audience member’s question asking if publishing this kind of work may have negative consequences. In science, publishing work and including a complete description of methodologies and techniques used is encouraged. Dr. De Choudhury comments on the importance of different groups validating methods and increasing reproducibility in science; however, in this specific field, that can be challenging, as a detailed description of her algorithms may be negatively taken advantage of. As an example, she described how her team had to cease a collaboration with an insurance company when she realized potential unethical implications for her work in the insurance field. In cases like this, life insurance companies could deny coverage or raise premiums if a customer has been detected as having risk for suicide, and this information would have originated from seemingly harmless social media activity.
Want to cite this post?
Garza, K. (2019). How Social Media Can Revolutionize Mental Health: Recap of December’s The Future Now: NEEDS. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2019/02/how-social-media-can-revolutionize.html