Machine learning of language use on Twitter reveals weak and non-specific predictions
NPJ Digit Med. 2022 Mar 25;5(1):35. doi: 10.1038/s41746-022-00576-y.
Depressed individuals use language differently than healthy controls and it has been proposed that social media posts can be used to identify depression. Much of the evidence behind this claim relies on indirect measures of mental health and few studies have tested if these language features are specific to depression versus other aspects of mental health. We analysed the Tweets of 1006 participants who completed questionnaires assessing symptoms of depression and 8 other mental health conditions. Daily Tweets were subjected to textual analysis and the resulting linguistic features were used to train an Elastic Net model on depression severity, using nested cross-validation. We then tested performance in a held-out test set (30%), comparing predictions of depression versus 8 other aspects of mental health. The depression trained model had modest out-of-sample predictive performance, explaining 2.5% of variance in depression symptoms (R2 = 0.025, r = 0.16). The performance of this model was as-good or superior when used to identify other aspects of mental health: schizotypy, social anxiety, eating disorders, generalised anxiety, above chance for obsessive-compulsive disorder, apathy, but not significant for alcohol abuse or impulsivity. Machine learning analysis of social media data, when trained on well-validated clinical instruments, could not make meaningful individualised predictions regarding users' mental health. Furthermore, language use associated with depression was non-specific, having similar performance in predicting other mental health problems.