In a new study, researchers found that people who post about their emotional struggles often receive supportive, empathetic responses. 

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated March 01, 2017
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Social media might not seem like much of a “safe space” for expressing sensitive emotional issues, but that’s exactly what many people find there. According to a new study, Instagram has become a place where users can post openly about depression and receive supportive feedback in return.

Instagram may be a particularly helpful medium for those struggling with mental illness, say the study authors, since people are often hesitant to talk about depression and painful experiences. The platform’s primary focus on images gives users a unique way to express feelings that may be difficult to put into words.

The new study, from researchers at Drexel University, examined a sample of 800 Instagram posts, pulled from more than 95,000 photos hashtagged with #depression over the course of a month. It looked at whether people were simply expressing emotion or seeking social interaction, and at specific topics being posted about—concerns about looks, relationship problems, illness, or eating disorders, for example.

Overall, 41 percent of these posts elicited comments expressing positive social support, with users who phrased their captions to actively seek out social support receiving significantly more feedback than those who didn’t.

People who told stories or gave details about their suffering, rather than just implying that they have a problem, also seemed to get more supportive responses to their posts—comments like, "I know how that feels," "I have been there," or "You are strong and beautiful." Posts that mentioned a specific illness, for example, received more than twice as many supportive comments as those that didn’t.

And when users posted about behaviors such as harming themselves, or struggling with an eating disorder, positive comments offering support and discouraging the unhealthy behavior drastically outnumbered negative posts. This was somewhat surprising, the researchers say, since these types of posts could also make users targets for bullying and hurtful commentary.

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“Physical or mental health and body image concerns are stigmatized, rarely disclosed and frequently elicit negative responses when shared with others,” wrote study authors Andrea Forte, PhD, and Nazanin Andalibi, a doctoral candidate at Drexel. “We found that these disclosures, in addition to deep and detailed stories of one’s difficult experiences, attract positive social support on Instagram.”

Previous research by Forte and Andalibi shows that the social network Reddit is another platform where people tend to disclose sensitive information and seek support for depression. Unlike Facebook, Reddit and Instragam both allow for anonymous profiles, suggesting that people may feel more comfortable posting content without their real names.

The research on Instagram was presented last week at the Association for Computing Machinery’s International Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, and has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Internet bullying definitely happens, and the study authors acknowledge that the risks of making sensitive disclosures online are still very real. Some studies have also shown that social media use, in some forms, can be linked to feelings of isolation, unhappiness, and depression. But this new research sheds light on at least one positive way social media might affect people struggling with depression or illness.

Last fall, Instagram introduced a suicide prevention tool that allows users to flag content they think might indicate that a person is considering harming themselves. The company worked with national mental-health organizations to develop messaging for these people that seems caring, rather than invasive, and that offers resources where they can go for help.

Based on this new research, this type of outreach certainly makes sense. Andalibi agrees that it’s an important step, but says platforms like Instagram should be doing even more to facilitate safe and supportive connections.

“It is very important to figure out what the needs of certain marginalized or stigmatized populations are,” she said in a press release, “and how we could be more inclusive and considerate when we design social media.”