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The Way You Use Instagram Can Show if You’re Depressed

August 8, 2017, 8:57 PM UTC
An Instagram employee takes a video using Instagram's new video function at Facebook's corporate headquarters during a media event in Menlo Park, California on June 20, 2013.
Photograph by AFP — Getty Images

It’s often said that eyes are a window into the soul. Instagram, it turns out, can be that window, too, as researchers say they’ve developed an algorithm that uses posts on the social media network to identify depression more effectively than doctors can.

Chris Danforth of the University of Vermont and Andrew Reece of Harvard University published their findings Tuesday in the EPJ Data Science journal. The tool they built to scan Instagram posts, they said, could accurately identify depression in 70% of their study’s participants. Doctors, on the contrary, are successful only 42% of the time.

To arrive at these results, Danforth and Reece’s team looked at roughly 44,000 Instagram photos posted by 166 study participants — 71 of whom were diagnosed with depression in the past. Analyzing factors such as hue, the use of filters and the presence of people, researchers were able to determine what they call “depression markers.” Depressed people, for example, were more likely to post photos with darker, grey colors. Of those tones, the black and white Inkwell filter was more likely to be chosen, though depressed people on the whole were less likely to choose filters to begin with. People who aren’t depressed, on the other hand, preferred the Valencia filter, which brightens the image.

Surprisingly, depressed people were more likely to post photos with faces in them. (Because the authors didn’t determine who the photos were of, they couldn’t say if that correlation meant the depressed people took more selfies.)