“Cries for help” on Twitter have been linked to a spike in mental-health crises.
Scientists from King’s College London analysed the “volume” of “depression and schizophrenia tweets” published on the social media site over five years.
On days where the output was above average, mental health related hospitalisations were found to increase by up to 15%.
The portrayal of suicide or self harm via TV and film has long been linked to “mental health-relevant outcomes” among the public, the scientists wrote.
A public figure dying by suicide has also been associated with “suicidal behaviour” in “exposed populations”, they added.
One study reportedly found a 10% increase in “general population suicides” following the death of Good Will Hunting actor Robin Williams.
The scientists “assume” some people may be “sensitised” to these events.
Social media is increasingly being blamed for everything from a surge in depression to plummeting self-esteem.
With sites such as Instagram and Twitter “exploding” in recent years, the scientists set out to uncover whether tweets are an accurate way of “analysing behaviours”.
They looked at the number of “crisis episodes” admitted to South London and Maudsley, and Camden and Islington NHS foundation trusts.
These were compared against a random 10% sample of all tweets published between January 2010 and December 2014.
The tweets were screened according to any mention of depression or schizophrenia.
“Higher volume days” were defined as more than six in every 10 million, or 10 in every one billion, tweets referencing the mental-health conditions.
Results, published in the journal Scientific Reports, reveal hospital admissions were up to 15% higher on days with “above-median schizophrenia-related Twitter posts”.
“Above-median depression tweet days” were linked to a 9% rise in the number of hospitalisations.
The scientists believe their results “contribute some support to concerns, already widely expressed” over social media.
“It's important to consider this kind of research does not suggest the content of social media is the cause of the increase in crisis,” said Dr Bob Patton from the University of Surrey.
“The researchers had no way to determine what (if any) social media exposure those in crisis had experienced.
“However, this research does provide compelling evidence the two are linked, and as such lends further support to recent suggestions that social media providers need to be sensitive to the content they host and links to sources of help and support should accompany messages with a focus upon sensitive issues”.
The King’s scientists stressed: “Twitter posts are likely to be only a proxy indicator of exposures potentially influencing mental health and mental healthcare crisis episodes are only a proxy indicator of population mental health”.
For confidential emotional support at times of distress, contact The Samaritans at any time by calling 116 123 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.