Your Instagram Posts Reveal a Lot About Your Mental Health, Study Says

Photos posted by depressed users have several key traits, according to the research.


Photo via Kizilkaya

Much has been made of social media’s connection to depression. A study from this spring found that the more time you spend on social media, the more likely you are to be depressed. Both anecdotal and scientific evidence suggests that scrolling through Instagram and Facebook can promote FOMO, or fear of missing out. Now, new research from Harvard and the University of Vermont says your Instagram posts may actually reveal whether or not you’re depressed.

Your propensity for artfully arranged smoothie bowls and scenic Beacon Hill streets may not be what’s illuminating, though. The study found that depressed individuals tend to post photos that are bluer, darker, and grayer, while people without depression often post light images.

To reach that finding, the team crowdsourced participants—some depressed, some not—from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, and asked them to take surveys related to mental health and social media. Next, they analyzed the entire Instagram histories of 166 of those people, extracting data about post frequency, comments and likes, color, filters, and image content. They also recruited a different set of people from Mechanical Turk to rate 20 of the photos, selected at random, based on how likable, happy, and sad each picture seemed. After all the data was amassed, the researchers used an algorithm to find connections.

In addition to the light versus dark correlation, the algorithm found that depressed people’s photos received fewer likes but more comments. Depressed participants posted more often than their peers, and posted more images of people—but, in general, the images had fewer people in them than human-focused pictures posted by healthy users. Subjects with depression were less likely to use filters, but disproportionately chose Inkwell, the black and white filter, when they did. (Healthy users disproportionately chose Valencia.)

In short, your social media footprint speaks to a lot more than your food preferences and vacation destinations.

“These findings demonstrate how visual social media may be harnessed to make accurate inferences about mental health,” the authors wrote in their paper. “These findings suggest new avenues for early screening and detection of mental illness.”