How Social Networks Can Make Us Healthier And Happier

A growing number of researchers are using websites like Twitter and Facebook to monitor our well-being in a way that seemed impossible not long ago.

What’s the Big Idea? 

Sometimes a little over-sharing online can be a good thing, at least if it’s about your health.

Researchers at the University of Rochester have started using posts on Twitter to predict when people will get sick, and the amazing thing is they are actually succeeding most of the time. The team analyzed 4.4 million tweets with geo-location data attached in the New York City area to track the spread of specific infectious diseases (for this study, it was the flu) around the city. The result is a kind of weather map that can forecast where an illness is spreading to next. Based on this information, the researchers can predict when people will get sick up to eight days before they exhibited any symptoms with a remarkable 90% accuracy.

This isn’t the first time that scientists have turned to the information shared on social networks for the public good.  A growing number of researchers are using websites like Twitter and Facebook to monitor our well-being in a way that seemed impossible not long ago.

Scientists have used Facebook to track everything from the spread of sexually transmitted diseases to the likelihood of certain college students developing drinking problems. In Japan, researchers studied a local social network called Mixi and actually came up with a formula to determine which users are most likely to be suicidal.  And last year, sociologists at Cornell used Twitter to determine how the average person’s mood changed throughout the day, week and year in 84 different countries. 

What’s the Significance?

Each of these studies shows just how powerful a tool social media can be to predict changes in our mental health and physical health, and to potentially help improve both.

The conventional wisdom these days is that we should be mindful of how much information we share online because it can be tracked by advertisers or potential employers. While that’s certainly true, the explosion of personal data shared online is a boon to researchers, and in turn, for our public health.  Social networks like Twitter and Facebook are essentially giant study groups that produce reams and reams of raw, real-time data. 

What’s really exciting here isn’t just that researchers can track these changes, but that they can then potentially use this information to enhance our quality of life.

It’s not hard to envision a time when researchers use all this data to create applications that can offer up customized recommendations to users about how to stay healthy and happy. If people nearby are getting sick, an app could suggest you to start taking specific vitamins or other treatments in advance. If there’s a specific time of day when you or the people around you tend to be in a bad mood, an app could remind you to take a 10 minute walk to boost your spirit.

Who knows, perhaps researchers could even work together with advertisers one day so that if a user shows signs of depression or mental illness on a social network, a targeted ad might appear on screen for a place where he or she can get treatment or counseling.

If we’re going to keep sharing so much personal data online anyway, we might as well at least put it to good use.

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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