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Head versus heart: social media reveals differential language of loneliness from depression

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We study the language differentially associated with loneliness and depression using 3.4-million Facebook posts from 2986 individuals, and uncover the statistical associations of survey-based depression and loneliness with both dictionary-based (Linguistic Inquiry Word Count 2015) and open-vocabulary linguistic features (words, phrases, and topics). Loneliness and depression were found to have highly overlapping language profiles, including sickness, pain, and negative emotions as (cross-sectional) risk factors, and social relationships and activities as protective factors. Compared to depression, the language associated with loneliness reflects a stronger cognitive focus, including more references to cognitive processes (i.e., differentiation and tentative language, thoughts, and the observation of irregularities), and cognitive activities like reading and writing. As might be expected, less lonely users were more likely to reference social relationships (e.g., friends and family, romantic relationships), and use first-person plural pronouns. Our findings suggest that the mechanisms of loneliness include self-oriented cognitive activities (i.e., reading) and an overattention to the interpretation of information in the environment. These data-driven ecological findings suggest interventions for loneliness that target maladaptive social cognitions (e.g., through reframing the perception of social environments), strengthen social relationships, and treat other affective distress (i.e., depression).


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Citation:

Liu, T., Ungar, L.H., Curtis, B. et al. Head versus heart: social media reveals differential language of loneliness from depression. npj Mental Health Res1, 16 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s44184-022-00014-7