A perfect tweetstorm: Scientists claim the language people use in their Twitter posts can reveal the state of their mental health and be used to predict loneliness

  • Researchers analysed posts by users who tweeted the words ‘lonely’ or ‘alone’
  • They found these users also often tweeted about anger, depression and anxiety
  • Loneliness affects one-in-five adults and is linked to cardiovascular disease
  • Experts are working on a loneliness intervention scheme for hospital patients

The language you use in your tweets can be used to reveal the state of your mental health and work out how lonely you are, a study has reported.

Considered a public health crisis, loneliness affects around one-in-five adults and has been linked to cardiovascular disease and depression. 

US researchers have created a system that can predict loneliness based on hospital patients’ tweets and are working to integrate this into an intervention programme.

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The language you use in your tweets can be used to work out how lonely you are and reveal the state of your mental health, a study has reported (stock image)

Digital expert Sharath Chandra Guntuku of the the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and colleagues set out to address the crisis by determining what topics and themes in people’s tweets could be associated with loneliness.

By applying linguistic analytic model to tweets, they found that users who tweeted about loneliness post significantly more often about mental health concerns and things like relationship issues, substance abuse and insomnia.

The findings could make it easier to identify Twitter users who are lonely — and provide support for them — even if they don’t explicitly tweet about feeling alone.

‘Loneliness can be a slow killer, as some of the medical problems associated with it can take decades to manifest,’ said Dr Guntuku.

‘If we are able to identify lonely individuals and intervene before the health conditions associated with the themes we found begin to unfold, we have a chance to help much earlier in their lives.’

‘This could be very powerful and have long-lasting effects on public health.’

By identifying typical themes posted online by lonely people, the researchers say they have uncovered some of the ingredients required to build a ‘loneliness prediction system’.

Considered a public health crisis, loneliness affects around one-in-five adults and has been linked to depression, cardiovascular disease and depression (stock image)

‘Social media has the potential to allow researchers and clinicians to passively measure loneliness over time,’ said paper author Rachelle Schneider.

‘Through validating our data, we can develop a reliable and accurate tool to do this monitoring.’

Focusing on Twitter users in Pennsylvania with publicly accessible accounts, the team found over 2,000 people who had tweeted the words ‘lonely’ or ‘alone’ more than five times between 2012 and 2016.

Comparing those users’ tweets to those on the wider Twitter timeline revealed that ‘lonely’ users tweeted nearly twice as often as others, and were much more likely to do so at night.

Tweeters who posted about loneliness were also much more likely to post content associated with anger, depression and anxiety, the team found.

They were also often tweeted about both their relationship struggles — using phrases like ‘want somebody’ or ‘no one to’ — and substance use, employing such words as ‘smoke’, ‘weed’ or ‘drunk’.

‘On Twitter, we found lonely users expressing a need for social support and it appears that the use of expletives and the expression of anger is a sign of that being unfulfilled,’ added Dr Guntuku.

‘Moving forward, we will need to test this in order to determine if one may cause the other. Does loneliness cause anger, or vice versa?’

Once loneliness has been identified, it can be tackled in a number of ways, explained paper author and digital health expert Raina Merchant.

‘It’s clear that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. Some interventions include buddy systems, peer-to-peer networks, therapy, and skill development for navigating day-to-day interactions with others,’ she said.


Twitter isn’t the first social media giant to look into how its platform affects users’ health. 

Facebook admitted in December that the site could be damaging to people’s health if used the wrong way. 

The company recommended that people use Facebook in an active, rather than passive, way, by communicating with friends, instead of just scrolling through their feed.

Facebook said it consulted with social psychologists, social scientists and sociologists to determine that the site can be good for users’ well-being if used the right way 

By interacting with people when you use Facebook, it can improve your well-being, according to the company.

The report came after a former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya said Facebook ‘destroyed how society works’. 

Facebook went on to say that while there were some downsides to social media, that by and large it has the potential for benefits if it’s used correctly. 

In January, Facebook also acknowledged that social media can harm democracy.

With this initial study complete, the researchers are now looking to develop a better measure of the different dimensions of loneliness felt by online users.

The predictive model that the team developed is already accurately predicting loneliness in a patient population that opted-in to both share their Twitter data and take a validated loneliness survey.

The researchers hope to soon launch an initiative that identifies lonely patients receiving care in hospital, alongside developing interventions to support both them and their families.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal BMJ Open. 

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