Instagram May Offer Clues About Depression But Don’t Read Too Much Into It

A recent study suggests possibly, but be careful how much you read into this study...and Instagram pictures. People who were depressed were more likely to: Post bluer, darker, and grayer photos Post more frequently Have more comments on their Instagram posts Have fewer likes on their Instagram posts Post photos with human faces Show less of their face, when including a photo with their face. Thus, the study really didn't compare their algorithm with the abilities of a properly-trained health professional. Lack of time among health professionals. Health professionals may not know how to screen for depression. Shortage of mental health professionals. And I don't quite see a doctor saying "take off your shirt, take a deep breath, and show me your Instagram posts" or "I've been following you on Instagram lately. What's up with the lack of filters?" Routinely diagnosing depression solely or largely on Instagram posts just should not happen. At most, your Instagram posts can be part of a larger picture.

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Hmm, why did that person post a picture of a steeple on Instagram? Could it mean that his spirits are up? Or maybe the gray hues mean something? And where’s his face? Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Short of someone holding up a sign and saying that he or she is depressed, can Instagram postings really help diagnose depression? A recent study suggests possibly, but be careful how much you read into this study…and Instagram pictures.

Here’s what Andrew G. Reece from Harvard University and Christopher M. Danforth from the University of Vermont did for a study published in EPJ Data Science. They used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) crowdwork platform to eventually recruit 166 individuals, who agreed to share their Instagram data and whether they already had a clinical diagnosis of depression (71 had a history of depression). Each study subject took the CES-D (Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale) questionnaire to identify which participants may have depression. The researchers then used computer algorithms to sift through and categorize over 43,000 photos to determine what characteristics may be associated with depression as determined by the questionnaire.

People who were depressed were more likely to:

  • Post bluer, darker, and grayer photos
  • Post more frequently
  • Have more comments on their Instagram posts
  • Have fewer likes on their Instagram posts
  • Post photos with human faces
  • Show less of their face, when including a photo with their face.
  • Not use Instagram filters to adjust the photo’s brightness and coloring.
  • Use the Inkwell filter (which would make the photo black and white) when they did use filters.
  • Not use Valencia, filter that lightens the tint of the photo

But before you get worried about those photos that you posted with only half your face sticking out of a blueberry costume that got a hundred “what is that?” comments but few likes, keep in mind that this is a limited study. It’s difficult to draw strong conclusions from a relatively small and select sample of people. Moreover, there may be many other reasons for posting certain types of photos. For example, if you are a rabid Seattle Seahawks fan, many of your photos may be blue and gray. Similarly, if you actually play for the Seattle Seahawks, then your football helmet may be frequently obscuring part of your face. Moreover, if frequency of posting is a criteria, then what does this say every celebrity very active on Instagram…although they all probably get a lot of “likes.”

The researchers also make a rather large leap when they say that “our model showed considerable improvement over the ability of unassisted general practitioners to correctly diagnose depression.” What the study compared is how well their computer algorithms was able to detect depression as determined by the questionnaire (70 percent of the time) with…

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