Instagram diagnoses depression more accurately than doctors, study shows

Warnings on social media abuse and its detrimental impact on our mental health are rising. Self-help books on mindfulness and wellbeing recommend regular digital detoxes and advise caution around Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and the likes.

But a new study has just emerged, establishing how Instagram posts could actually reveal signs of depression — even before diagnosis.

(Photo: João Silas via Unsplash)

Andrew G. Reece at Harvard University’s Department of Psychology and Christopher M. Danforth at the University of Vermont’s Computational Story Lab co-wrote the paper which took results from 166 participants — exploring a staggering 43,950 different Instagram photos.

Can an Instagram filter tell if you’re depressed?

The reason Reece and Danforth delve into this study is because Instagram as a platform is outgrowing most social media sites rapidly, with 100 million new posts being posted every day.

Their finding revealed that the participants diagnosed with depression would favor darker colors in photos. Inkwell was by far the filter of choice, while those without depression were more inclined to use Valencia, somewhat sunnier in color tone.

The content of each post showed that people with depression featured a lower count of faces per post – but more face-based posts across their feed. This data was not managed to be linked to the relationship between depressed individuals and selfies, though.

Past the hues of the posts, it was revealed that the engagement with Instagram posts was telling too. Depressed users had fewer likes, but more comments on their posts. The study suggested that people with depression then post more often also.

A tool more effective than a GP?

Using this algorithm, the study correctly identified depression among participants 70% of the time — against 42% among doctors. False diagnosis or late diagnosis has been a recurring problem among sufferers of depression. Danforth explains to Mashable how he sees the study acting as a relevant and important tool:

“Doctors don’t have visibility into our lives the way our mobile phone does. It knows a lot more about us than we know about ourselves.”

However, although the findings are incredibly revealing on the accuracy and importance of visual social media, one must remain wary. What worked for 70% of 166 participants does not necessarily imply an accurate diagnosis 100% of the time in the future — or that doctors will always be wrong.

(via giphy)

Interestingly, 509 people began the survey. It turns out that 43% abandoned it before the end, reluctant to share their Instagram data. Be it in the waiting room or on the internet, we are still not quite set on revealing all our insecurities it seems.

The study was commended by psychiatry and depression specialists, while Dr. Louise Theodosiou of the Royal College of Psychiatrists explained how she has already used Instagram and sees its benefits:

“This is a promising study that may help to identify the early warning signs of mental distress. I have worked with young people who recognize each other’s distress through Instagram, and this can certainly be helpful.

We should be wary, however, of ever using such tools for diagnosis purposes.”

Indeed, while the findings offer promise in flagging warning signs and suggestions, like all stories and studies on the internet we must draw our own conclusions.

What worked for the participants could work for new patients, but each case must be treated with sensitivity and adequate care, tailored to each individual. But if you think your Instagram feed or someone near you could be telling of important signs — it’s time to share.

Originally published on Konbini

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