Researchers analyzed language used in the subreddit r/depression to gauge the community’s long-term effects and the readability of user posts.
Over the weekend, a Reddit user posted this message to the depression subreddit, an online community where people share, discuss, and commiserate on all issues regarding depression: “Anyone else feel like this subreddit makes them more depressed?” The user explained that sometimes reading about everyone else’s depression made them feel even more hopeless.
That poster’s query was the exact question that University of Utah researches addressed in a study last year, using Reddit as their lab. They tested for the long-term effects of participating in online mental health communities by analyzing hundreds of thousands of Reddit posts for changes in emotional language over time.
Reddit is divided into forums called subreddits, which create communities around a particular topic or interest, including for mental health-related issues like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety.
Previous studies had shown the positive effects of belonging to an online health community, but they were primarily focused on cancer communities and other groups where mental health was a secondary factor. Given the robust work on emotional contagion theory—that both positive and negative emotions can spread—the researchers questioned whether the effects would cancel each other out in a community about depression.
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“Emotions can spread, and that can happen in an online setting too,” said Albert Park, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Utah and an author of the study and a follow-up paper published this month.
The researchers analyzed the subreddit for depression (r/depression) and several other mental health subreddits, searching for emotion-related language by using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC). For example, frequent usage of the first-person singular, negation words like “no,” “never,” and “not,’” and talk of death are all indicators of negative emotional content. The researchers then checked whether these indicators increased or decreased over time and compared the results against 3 controls. The control communities included 2 other health subreddits with a less overt connection to negative emotion, r/diabetes and r/ibs (irritable bowel syndrome), and r/happy, a subreddit where users share positive stories or encouragement.
The results suggested that participants of r/depression increased in positive language and decreased in negative language over time—more so than, or as much as, the other subreddits. “Despite prolonged interactions with other depressed individuals, r/depression members’ emotional states were found to have become more positive,” wrote the researchers.
In the most recent study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, the researchers tested for additional long-term effects of participating in online health communities, still using the Reddit data set. The study explored whether the quality of language improved over time for members of online health communities.
What drew him to ask the question, said Park, was that during a qualitative reading of r/depression posts, he noticed a pattern. In the beginning, people would post only to vent, and their writing was unclear and rambling, but that seemed to change over time. “I started to notice that as they come in more, and they participate more, they’re more calmed down, and they’re articulating a little bit better.”
Previous research suggested that mental health can affect language use in daily life for the worse. The researchers explored this premise by analyzing the Reddit posts of 3 target and 3 control mental health communities, using metrics for readability and lexical diversity, 2 indicators of coherent use of language. The target communities were r/depression, r/bipolar, and r/schizophrenia, which were compared against r/happy, r/bodybuilding, and r/loseit, a community for people trying to lose weight.
The results suggested that the 3 control communities used simpler language as measured by readability scores, which look for syntactic complexity and word frequency, among other indicators. While higher readability scores could indicate more sophisticated writing, rather than less coherent language, a manual review did not find that high readability scores were indications of sophistication. The results also showed improvement in readability over time for members of the mental health communities, but the effect sizes were small.
One caveat is that readability scores were first designed in the 1950s and ‘60s, and while they are widely used, there may be some need to update them for the specificities of online communication.
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