World-changing ideas summit

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The World-Changing Ideas Summit

This story is part of a series inspired by the subjects and speakers appearing at BBC Future’s World-Changing Ideas Summit in Sydney on 15 November. Find out more about the inspiring people coming to the meeting, including:

  • Researcher Helen Christensen on how tech can spot and treat mental health issues
  • BBC TV presenter Michael Mosley on the science of food and health
  • Uber’s Kevin Corti on the hidden patterns of city transport
  • Researcher and TV presenter Emma Johnston on the impact of cities on oceans
  • Astronauts Ron Garan and Andrew Thomas

+ many more

“What’s on your mind?” This is how Facebook greets its 1.7 billion active users every day. It’s also a question that countless psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors have asked their clients at the start of a session; a question we instinctively ask of a friend or family member looking troubled.

Our social media activity can give extraordinary – and often unintentional – insights into our mental wellbeing. Little wonder that professionals whose job it is to look after our emotional health are now exploring how they can use these signals to take the ‘emotional pulse’ of individuals, communities, nations and even the entire species. This is one of the topics that will be discussed at the BBC Future’s World Changing Ideas Summit in Sydney in November.

WHAT DO MY SOCIAL MEDIA POSTS SAY ABOUT ME?

The types of posts we make and how frequently we make them say much more about who we are and what’s going on in our lives than the words themselves. A study of 555 Facebook users in the US found that extroverts were more likely to post about social activities and everyday life, and to do so frequently. People with lower self-esteem tended to post more often about their romantic partner, neurotic individuals turn to Facebook for validation and attention-seeking, while people with narcissistic tendencies are more likely to use status updates to boast about their achievements or wax lyrical about their diet and exercise regimes.

Another study suggested that people who post lots of selfies are generally more narcissistic and psychopathic, while those who digitally tweak their photos a lot may actually have low self-esteem.

ARE PEOPLE USING SOCIAL MEDIA AS THERAPY?

Anyone who’s ever dumped an angry rant on Facebook or posted a bleak tweet at 3am will know that there is some form of self-therapy embedded in our use of social media. But is it just crying into a void that amplifies your problems rather than helps you? The Center of Mental Health and Gender of Mexico, in Mexico City, apparently thinks so, and is reported to have launched a campaign warning citizens that sharing their woes on Facebook is not a cheap replacement for proper psychological therapy.

Researchers are looking at how people’s status updates or Twitter posts might be trawled for red flags

But the void is listening, and it could help. Researchers are looking at how people’s status updates or Twitter posts might be trawled for red flags suggesting they are at risk of suicide, for example. Australia’s Black Dog Institute – headed by Helen Christensen who will be presenting at BBC Future’s WCIS event in November – recently conducted a study using a computer program that monitored two months worth of tweets for certain suicide-related phrases or terms. Human researchers and a software program then classified the tweets that appeared to raise concerns. Both the human coders and software had a high level of agreement, which opens up the possibility that software could be taught to identify cries for help, and perhaps even alert family or doctors.

Some online communities are also recognising the significance of suicide-related warnings in posts, and organising their own support networks. Reddit’s Suicide Watch site was set up to offer a way for the community to respond to and support at-risk members. While the bear-pit of online communities does still generate the inevitable complement of trolls in these situations, many of the responses show a genuine desire to help a fellow human being in pain.

A lack of social media networking can also indicate mental health problems. One study is using a Bluetooth-enabled app to map the patterns of a young person’s social connectivity, so it can detect when that person is interacting less with their friends and withdrawing from those networks, which is often a sign of depression.

DOES SOCIAL MEDIA REVEAL ANY BIGGER EMOTIONAL TRENDS?

Communities, nations and humanity as a whole often go through ups and downs together. The Black Dog Institute and CSIRO – Australia’s science agency – have joined forces to take the emotional pulse of the entire planet with their “We Feel” initiative. By monitoring public Twitter for a large selection of emotion terms, and also picking a random 1% sample of public tweets, they analyse an average of 19,000 tweets per minute to work out how the Twitterverse is feeling at any moment in time.

The result is a map showing the relative percentages of different emotional states – surprise, joy, love, sadness, anger, fear – in different parts of the world. It reveals how these emotional states wax and wave in response to various national and global events.

The Hedonometer Project also taps into the Twitter stream to get a sense of the relative happiness of different languages including English, French, Arabic and Indonesian. Using text from Twitter, newspapers, Google Books, and even movie titles, they found the 10,000 most frequently used words in each language, then got native speakers to rate each word on a positivity-negativity scale.

This analysis revealed that we generally do have a tendency towards positivity and happiness, although Spanish and Portuguese seem to be particularly upbeat languages compared to the rest.

The team is now using this same approach to analyse the average happiness of Twitter, and show the impact of events such as the US Presidential debates (a drop in happiness), Brad and Angelina’s divorce (another drop) and the legalisation of same-sex marriage (increase in happiness). They are also using this approach to look at how happiness correlates with other factors, such as socioeconomic status, geography and demographics across the US.

So next time you browse social media, take a moment to reflect that what you are reading and sharing is revealing much more about what’s going on inside our heads than first appears.

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