Understanding ADHD through Twitter

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Nicole Mason

Millions of people log in to Twitter to say pretty much anything, mainly what they think and feel at any one time, as often as they like. They can generate so much information about themselves that can be very useful to other people, like mental health professionals.

To discover the things individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD, which is characterized by restlessness, inattention and impulsivity, talk about, four researchers at the University of Pennsylvania turned to the social networking site. Their findings were published recently in the Journal of Attention Disorders.

“On social media, where you can post your mental state freely, you get a lot of insight into what these people are going through, which might be rare in a clinical setting,” said Sharath Chandra Guntuku, one of the researchers. “In brief 30- or 60-minute sessions with patients, clinicians might not get all manifestations of the condition, but on social media you have the full spectrum.”

Mr. Guntuku and his colleagues examined 1.3 million publicly available tweets by 1,399 users with self-reported diagnoses of ADHD. The posts were compared with those of a control group whose members matched users with ADHD in age, gender and period of activity.

The users who said they had ADHD had the tendency to tweet about lack of focus, self-regulation, intention and failure. Their tweets also dealt with mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. Some of the words they frequently used were “hate,” “disappointed,” “cry” and “sad.” They often published a tweet between midnight and 6 a.m.

“People with ADHD are experiencing more mood swings and more negativity,” said Lyle Ungar, another researcher. “They tend to have problems self-regulating.” He noted that this could partially explain why social media’s quick feedback loop is enjoyed by these individuals. If they post a tweet, and other users react positively to it, then they are likely to continue tweeting.

Soon, condition-specific apps that Mr. Ungar and Mr. Guntuku are planning to create based on their findings and those of other similar studies could provide more information about ADHD and other mental conditions like anxiety and depression by taking into account such factors as personality, severity of the condition and triggers of particular symptoms.

These apps could also help mitigate the effects of the disorders by, for instance, telling the users to do a breathing exercise if they are stressed out or switch off their phones at least an hour before retiring. “If you’re prone to certain problems, certain things set you off; the idea is to help set you back on track,” Mr. Ungar said.

The study has some weaknesses. One such weakness is the fact that the diagnoses were self-reported and not made by a mental health professional. Another is that the 50-50 split of ADHD to non-ADHD study participants does not reflect reality.

But the researchers said their work has the potential to help clinicians understand the varying manifestations of ADHD and could be used as a tool to give individuals with ADHD personal insights.

“The facets of better-studied conditions like depression are pretty well understood,” Mr. Ungar said. “ADHD is less well studied. Understanding the components that some people have or don’t have, the range of coping mechanisms that people use — that all leads to a better understanding of the condition.”