The language people use on social media and the information they post may offer valuable insights into the relationship between their everyday lives and health, a new study has found.
Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania found that many adult Facebook and Twitter users are willing to share their social media data and medical data for research purposes.
By building a language databank, it may be possible to link social media content to health outcomes, researchers said.
“We don’t often think of our social media content as data, but the language we use and the information we post may offer valuable insights into the relationship between our everyday lives and our health,” said the study’s senior author, Raina M Merchant, director of the Social Media and Health Innovation Lab and an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at Penn Medicine.
“Finding ways to effectively harness and mine that data could prove to be a valuable source of information about how and why patients communicate about their health.
“There is a rich potential to identify health trends both in the general public and at the individual level, create education campaigns and interventions, and much more.
“One of the unique aspects of this data is the ability to link social media data with validated information from a health record,” Merchant said.
In the study, patients visiting an Emergency Department were asked if they used social media, and if they would be willing to share their social media data and electronic medical data with health researchers, for the purpose of building a research database.
Similar to existing banks of genomic data, the research database of language and other social media data allows researchers to draw correlations between participants’ online content and their health.
More than 1,000 participants consented to share their social media and medical data over seven months. Analysing content from as far back as 2009, the shared social media data consisted of nearly 1.4 million posts and tweets to Facebook and Twitter, comprising almost 12 million words.
Researchers found that variations in word complexity could suggest cognitive decline, or a change in the number of words per post or network size might be indicative of a depressed mental status.
Posted content could also reveal information about adherence to prescribed medications, new medical conditions, or health behaviours like exercise and diets.
The researchers also found that individuals with a given diagnosis in their electronic medical record were significantly more likely to use terms related to that diagnosis on Facebook than patients without that diagnosis in their electronic medical record.
The findings are published in the journal BMJ Quality & Safety.