Psychiatrists Imagine a World Where Facebook Plays a Role in Psychiatric Research

Earlier this month, scientific journal Lancet Psychiatry published a think piece by a team of researchers that expounded on the potential that Facebook and other social media platforms have for the psychiatry field. In the think piece, they stated that it should no longer be a question of if healthcare providers and psychiatric research should engage with social media sites, but of how to go about it in order to bring about positive change. They asserted how Facebook could assist with identifying, predicting, and intervening in cases of mental illness.

The authors believe that Facebook data, when used with case studies, offers many advantages, including better reliability than self-reported data.
The authors also admitted that there could be ethical issues that arise with such a methodology, especially when it comes to young people. One key challenge would be to ensure that patients have a clear and comprehensive idea of what their participation would involve, and that consent is maintained throughout the stages of illness.

Garnering public support for this treatment would also be a huge hurdle, especially if Facebook’s past psychological experiments are any indication. Late in 2014, Facebook released a study in which they manipulated almost 700,000 users’ timelines to display either more positive or negative news reports. They demonstrated that the timeline content could influence the tone of the users’ status updates.

The public response was “furor,” to quote Wall Street Journal. Many Facebook users were upset that the platform had manipulated its members without their knowledge. Scientists were also outraged. One reporter from Slate wrote that Facebook’s methodology raised serious questions of ethics. She suggested that they could have possibly overstepped federal law and even human rights declarations. James Grimmelmann, professor of technology and law at the University of Maryland, said that anything that “causes changes in psychological status” is considered experimentation, and requires informed consent.

Using Facebook as a tool in psychiatric treatment is certainly new territory. While it may be proven useful, ethical considerations should also be addressed before fully implementing this concept.

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