The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we all interact with one another.
Instead of close gatherings, people have moved to communicating more online. Social media has provided an opportunity for people to stay connected, but increased use has also amplified social media’s ability to impact the mental health of its users.
Researchers at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, led by Professor of Informatics and Computing Johan Bollen, Assistant Professor of Public Heath Danny Valdez from the IU School of Public Health, and Bollen’s post-doctoral fellow Marijn ten Thij, used data collected from Twitter to study how use of the service changed during the early months of the pandemic and how the mood of its users evolved over time. The study, “Social Media Insights Into U.S. Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Longitudinal Analysis of Twitter Data,” was recently published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
“Our lab features an interdisciplinary mix of experts in computational social science, public health, cognitive science, informatics, clinical psychology, network science, and complex systems,” said Bollen, who is co-director of the Center for Social and BioMedical Complexity at IU. “When we met right before the university shut down operations in March 2020, like everybody else, we were discussing the possible consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. We realized that although lockdowns and other social mitigation measures would be necessary to control the spread of the virus, they could also negatively impact mental health, which is already one of the leading causes of disability worldwide.”
Bollen and his colleagues, which also included researchers from IU’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, analyzed more than 86 million tweets to study themes that emerged surrounding COVID-19; to what extent social media use increased during the onset of the pandemic; and, ultimately, how sentiment changed as the months of the pandemic dragged on.
“The study reveals that in times of pandemics and rapid spread of disease, we can rely on fast, if not real-time, indicators from social media to get a better picture of the socio-economic and public health effects of the crisis,” Bollen said. “These rapid indicators can inform policy to optimize outcomes not only in terms of the control of infectious disease but also to mitigate the possible negative psychological and social effects of these control measures, such as social distancing and lockdowns.
“We also learned that it is important to approach these studies with a view toward interdisciplinary collaborations across psychology, informatics, and public health. That really strengthened the quality of our work and the validity of our findings. We realized that it really matters to adopt an approach driven by deep domain expertise and theory across these domains.”
The group’s findings underscored the negative effects of the pandemic on the overall population sentiment. For some, it was found that social media could be a coping mechanism to combat feelings of isolation related to long-term social distancing, but it also could exacerbate negative feelings over time for many individuals. The study included recommendations to improve the outcomes for individual users, a larger population, and public policy.
Bollen and his colleagues have used the data from this study to investigate how social wellbeing declines as COVID-19 infection rates rise, and how cities with diverse populations are impacted vs. those that feature predominantly white populations.
“This important study is a perfect example of the power of data to illuminate and inform issues in the real world,” said Kay Connelly, associate dean for research at the Luddy School. “Mental health and wellbeing during this challenging time are at the forefront of public policy, and this novel, interdisciplinary approach has the opportunity to change lives and communities by highlighting potential problems that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.”