Social networks may even be used in future to treat mental illness, particularly among young people, the researchers said.
“Facebook is hugely popular and could provide us with a wealth of data to improve our knowledge of mental health disorders such as depression and schizophrenia,” said the study’s lead-author Becky Inkster from University of Cambridge.
Over a billion people worldwide use Facebook daily – one in seven of the global population – and social media use is increasing at three times the rate of other internet use.
“Its reach is particularly broad, too, stretching across the digital divide to traditionally hard-to-reach groups including homeless youth, immigrants, people with mental health problems, and seniors,” Inkster noted.
The researchers believe that Facebook might be used to help improve the detection of mental health factors.
Facebook data tends to be more reliable than offline self-reported information, while still reflecting an individual’s offline behaviours, study co-author Michal Kosinski from Stanford Graduate School of Business in the US added.
It also enables researchers to measure content that is difficult to assess offline, such as conversation intensity, and to reach sample sizes previously unobtainable.
Status updates, shares and likes can provide a wealth of information about users, the researchers noted in the study published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry.
“Facebook relationships may help those with reduced self-esteem and provide companionship for individuals who are socially isolated,” Inkster said.
“We know that socially isolated adolescents are more likely to suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts, so these online stepping stones could encourage patients to reform offline social connections,” she added.
These online – potentially leading to offline – social connections can provide support for vulnerable individuals such as homeless youth, a population at increased risk of mental health problems.
Research has shown that this support is associated with a reduction in their alcohol intake and a decrease in depression-like symptoms.
Unlike virtual patient communities, an advantage of using social networking sites, especially Facebook, is that people naturally use them in their daily lives, which addresses concerns about the limited duration of participation in virtual communities, the study said.