Boston Children’s Hospital Is Using Twitter For a Sleep Study

Social media continues to play a larger role in medical studies.

Can’t sleep? Perhaps you should put down your smartphone.

Among other things, a new study by researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital and Merck found that people who have “sleep issues” are more active on Twitter between 6 p.m. and 5:59 a.m.

This study, which was published Thursday in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, looked at the beginnings of a “digital phenotype” (a profile of what a person suffering insomnia or other sleep disorders “looks” like on social media). According to Boston Children’s, the study is the first to look at the relationship between social media use and sleep issues.

The study found—based on people’s Tweets—that people with sleep disorders may be at a greater risk of psychosocial issues.

“Sleep deprivation and chronic sleep disorders are not well understood,” said John Brownstein, PhD, director of Boston Children’s Computational Epidemiology Group, in a statement. “We wanted to see if we could use new forms of online data, such as Twitter, to characterize the sleep disordered individual and possibly uncover new, previously-undescribed populations of patients suffering sleep problems.”

According to the study:

The research team used publically available anonymized data from Twitter to create a virtual cohort of 896 active Twitter users whose tweets contained sleep-related words (e.g., “can’t sleep,” “insomnia”), or hashtags (e.g., #cantsleep, #teamnosleep), or the names of common sleep aids or medications. They then compared data from that cohort to those of a second group of 934 users who did not tweet using sleep-related terms.

The team examined each user’s:

  • age
  • total number of tweets
  • total numbers of followers or people followed
  • number of favorite tweets (that is, the number of tweets by others that the user had favorited)
  • length of time on Twitter (that is, how long the user had had an active Twitter account)
  • average number of tweets per day
  • location
  • time zone

Then, the researchers looked at time of day and the mood—positive, neutral, negative—of each user’s Tweets.

The researchers were then able to create a profile based on the information collected, sorting the Twitter users with sleep issues from those without. The researchers concluded: People with sleep issues have been active on Twitter for a relatively long time; have fewer followers and follow fewer people; post just a few Tweets per day on average; are more active on Twitter overnight; are more active on Twitter on weekends and early weekdays; and are more likely to post Tweets with negative sentiment.

According to the study:

The data suggests that Twitter users suffering from a sleep disorder are less active on Twitter on average but tweet more during traditional sleeping hours. The increase in negative sentiment in their tweets suggests that sleep-disordered users could be at an increased risk for psychosocial issues.

“These findings are preliminary and observational only, and need to be studied further,” Brownstein said. “But they suggest that social media can be a useful addition to our toolkit for studying the patient experience and behavioral epidemiology of sleep disorders.


Melissa Malamut
Melissa Malamut Melissa Malamut, Senior Editor, Health, at Boston Magazine mmalamut@bostonmagazine.com


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