Inside Reddit's Unexpected Impact On Mental Health

By Victoria Kim 04/25/18

The online community has faced criticism for hosting toxic subgroups, but the forum is helping some users in unexpected ways.

Image: 
hand holding a phone and opening the Reddit app.

Social media can be toxic, for sure. But recent research sought to find whether it can be therapeutic as well, specifically for people who struggle with mental health.

A paper published this month in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) concluded that Reddit, the so-called “front page” of the internet, had a positive impact on certain users’ ability to communicate over time.

Reddit is made up of subreddits, niche communities that each have their own rules, moderators, and subscribers. There is a subreddit for everything. r/ggggg is for people who love the letter G. r/The_Donald is frequented by, you guessed it, Donald Trump enthusiasts.

There are also subreddits about depression (r/depression), bipolar disorder (r/bipolar) and schizophrenia (r/schizophrenia).

The new research studied the effect that frequenting these particular subreddits had on subscribers, by analyzing how the language used on these online forums evolved over time.

After scouring subscribers’ posts from October 2007 to May 2015, the study concluded that over time, subscribers showed “statistically significant improvement” in both their lexical diversity and readability—indicating that over time, their participation on these mental health-focused subreddits had a positive impact on their ability to communicate.

The research suggests that being a part of these online communities (subreddits), and having a space to share and discuss mental health, had a positive impact overall. “Despite prolonged interactions with other depressed individuals, r/depression members’ emotional states were found to have become more positive,” the study concluded.

“I started to notice that as they come in more, and they participate more, they’re more calmed down, and they’re articulating a little bit better,” study author Albert Park, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Utah, told Healthcare Analytics News.

Prior to studying the effect on the subscribers’ communication skills, Park studied the impact that such subreddits had on evoking positive or negative emotion. Using the same dataset, they found that over time, subscribers of r/depression “adopted more positive language” in their posts, while the use of negative language decreased.

The research highlights the positive impact that social media can have on people who need mental health support—especially for those who don’t have access to help.

“I can’t speak for my coauthors, but I want to stress the value of emotional and informational support that are provided by your peers through social media platforms like Reddit,” Park told Gizmodo. “Social media may not be perfect, but it has its value in helping people in the context of health.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr

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