However much we might like to skirt around the issue, we all know that spending too much time on social media can be bad for our mental health. All those #blessed beach yoga photos and pointless Twitter arguments have a knack of making you feel worse about yourself and, all too often, humanity itself.
But according to a new study, the relationship between our social media activity and mental state works both ways: How often you post on Instagram could be an indication of your mental health issues.
Scientists from Harvard and Vermont universities created a computer program to recognize people with depression by studying the frequency at which they post and the types of images they share. By analyzing the Instagram behavior of people with mental health issues, they identified how people with depression use the app differently.
The study, published in the journal EPJ Data Science, found that users with depression posted more frequently than those without mental health issues and were more inclined to share photos that contained faces (albeit with a lower average face count per photograph than those without depression), but less likely to use filters.
However, when they did apply filters, the Instagram users with depression also generally shared images with a darker color scheme and garnered more comments from others on the app.
The study of 166 Instagram users and 43,950 photos correctly identified depressed individuals 70% of the time, compared with previous research showing that general practitioners can do so correctly 42% of the time, EurekAlert reported. However, it's important to note that this is a relatively small sample size, and it doesn't mean the findings would translate to the average user. Christopher Danforth, co-author of the study from the University of Vermont, also told BuzzFeed that the researchers haven't created a diagnostic test — just a proof-of-concept for a way to possibly read early signs and help people.
He added that the system could potentially be used by health professionals to identify people at risk of mental illness, reported EurekAlert. "Imagine an app you can install on your phone that pings your doctor for a check-up when your behavior changes for the worse, potentially before you even realize there is a problem."
You might not think about the potential health benefits when you upload that shameless selfie to the 'gram, but the researchers' algorithm could significantly change the way we diagnose and treat mental health conditions.
Danforth added: "It's better if we can get somebody who [might] die by suicide in 2018 in front of a psychologist sooner because there’s something about their social media that made it clear to the machine that they needed help and it wasn’t obvious to the people around them."
If you are experiencing depression and need support, please call the National Depressive/Manic-Depressive Association Hotline at 1-800-826-3632 or the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.