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Can Your Instagram Photos Reveal That You're Depressed?

A computer program was able to spot depressed people just by scanning their Instagram photos. Do your pictures fit the profile?
Image: A woman watches the rain from behind a window
In a study on social media and depression, depressed people favored Inkwell, an Instagram filter that turns photos black and white.yulkapopkova / Getty Images/Vetta
/ Source: NBC News

As Elyse Fox struggled with depression, she began to fill her Instagram account with photos that reflected her state of mind.

“I felt like I had a way to tell my story,” Fox, 27, tells NBC News Better. “I used photos that didn’t look like the typical Elyse. I would have a lot of photos that were a bit more edgy, grungy or show the darker side of me.”

Fox — the founder of the Sad Girls Club, a New York support group for girls going through mental illness and depression — found expressing her emotions that way was “super, super, super cathartic.”

Armed with her own experience, she can now quickly tell when others are depressed by looking at images they post on social media, she says.

Researchers found depressed individuals posted photos that were bluer, darker and grayer than images posted by others.

New research backs that up, with scholars at Harvard University and the University of Vermont able to teach a computer to spot depressed people with surprising accuracy — just by scanning their Instagram photos.

For the study, researchers first analyzed thousands of pictures from 166 Instagram users, 71 of whom had a history of depression. They found the depressed individuals posted photos that were bluer, darker and grayer than images posted by others.

Depressed people also favored Inkwell, an Instagram filter that turns photos black and white. Their photos were sadder and they tended to post pictures that had fewer faces in them per photo — perhaps because they were around fewer people or preferred to take selfies, the study authors theorize.

A computer program designed to spot those details then scoured the photos and correctly identified depressed people 70 percent of the time. In comparison, doctors diagnose depressed patients correctly only 42 percent of the time, previous research suggests.

The findings indicate depression can be detectable in Instagram posts and may be a “blueprint for effective mental health screening” in the future, the researchers say.

Experts warn these are early and small studies

“It’s very important to read these with a sense of caution. We certainly don’t want everybody running around diagnosing kids or one another,” says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.”

“[But] if we can use technology to extend our reach to people who are suffering from any kind of psychological illness, and get them access to help sooner, that is a hugely positive use.”

The computer models still need to be fine-tuned and privacy issues addressed, Steiner-Adair noted. She herself sometimes looks at patients’ Instagram photos, but never surreptitiously. Instead, she’ll ask a patient if they can look at the images together because they can be great conversation starters and help her understand the person better. Factors that would alarm her are posts about self-injury or body dysmorphia.

“But do I look at pictures to see if there’s a blue or gray filter? No,” she says. “What’s very tricky about all these things is that it’s so easy to connect dots in mistaken ways.”

If you’re worried about your own Instagram images ...

First, realize that just because you have a lot of blue pictures or photos with fewer faces, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re depressed, Steiner-Adair noted. Blue could be your favorite color, or you could be a private person.

If you’re still concerned, talk with somebody who you trust and say, “I’m wondering if in fact I’m depressed. Do I seem different to you?” Steiner-Adair suggests.

Look up the early warning signs of depression, such as changes in sleep and feelings of hopelessness. If you’re experiencing them, try to get a referral at work or school for a counselor to talk with.

Remember, depression affects almost 7 percent of U.S. adults, so it’s nothing to be ashamed of. The earlier you get help, the more likely you are to have a better outcome, Steiner-Adair says.

If you’re a parent worried about your child’s Instagram images ...

If you think your child is depressed based on her social media images, look for other signs of depression before making any assumptions, Steiner-Adair advises.

“If you just say, ‘I noticed your Instagram pictures are gray, blue and black. Are you depressed?’… I think any kid will look at their parent and go, ‘Are you nuts?’” she says.

“It’s much better if you go to a child and say: ‘I noticed you’re not eating and not going out as much. You’re spending hours on the screen in your bed, you seem really tired — like you’re not sleeping well — and you have a lot of dark pictures on your Instagram.”

Don’t be intense when you say this because that’s scary for a child. Instead, be calm, low-key and matter-of-fact, she adds. Then ask your child, “Have you noticed that, too? Do you feel any different?”

Expressing your emotions on social media

For Fox, who was diagnosed with depression as a teen, but didn’t tell anyone in her family until last year, it was a relief to find an outlet on Instagram. It was a way “just to get it out of my system,” she says.

Steiner-Adair sees the good sides, too: “I’ve seen and know people of all ages in which their ability to talk about their emotions online has been life-saving.”

Just don’t let social media suck you in to the point where you’d rather be online posting pictures with the hashtag #depression rather than reach out face-to-face to someone who can help, she says.

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