Reddit Use May Be Good for Mental Health, Study Shows

Illustration by Esther York | Staff Illustrator

Sabrina Bui

Reddit has gained a notorious reputation online and offline: the website is infamous as a hub for users who support unsavory topics such as misogyny and racism.

But a newly published 2017 study that the University of Utah conducted found that Reddit can be a place for people with mental health issues to find valuable support.

Reddit is a news aggregator and online forum that allows people to post, rate, and discuss content shared on the site. Posts are organized by topic into specific communities, known as “subreddits.”

Users have turned many subreddits into text-based support groups where people can chat with others in similar situations and seek advice on almost every topic imaginable, including health and wellness.

Past research has shown interaction in online health communities can have positive effects on the mental and social well-being of its users. However, researchers at the University of Utah noted much of the past studies concentrated on health communities for physical conditions such as cancer. Because of the lack of research specifically on online mental health communities, researchers focused on Reddit users who reported symptoms of depression. Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses. 

In the study, positive linguistic changes in the posts of users who frequented the subreddit “r/depression,” a support community for those with depression, were tracked against three other online health communities: r/happy, a positivity centered subreddit, r/IBS, and r/diabetes.

To check for improvements, researchers used a linguistic inquiry and word count (LIWC) program, a computerized text-analyzer that counts the occurrence of specific words in predetermined categories. This is also known as linguistic dimensions. The occurrence of words from the dimensions is an indicator of potential emotional states and thought processes. The LIWC program in the study looked for words that fell into dimensions of positive and negative emotion, denial, swearing, first-person singular (i.e. I, me, mine,) death, and acceptance.

The program analyzed a user’s text posts and comments on a word-by-word basis in order to generate a LIWC score. The score was the total number of words that fell into the program’s linguistic dimensions out of the user’s total word count.

The scores were then statistical analyzed to determine a line of best fit, a graph of the correlation between two variables. In this study, the two variables were the participation of each member in the online health communities and his or her LIWC score.

The results showed a 90 percent increase in use of the prespecified linguistic dimensions from participants in r/depression. Compared to the other health-focused subreddits studied, members showed just as much or significantly more improvement than users of the other subreddits.

The study’s findings imply there are benefits to online health communities. Engaging in these communities could help alleviate the symptoms of depression and produce positive, tangible effects on the overall well-being of members.

“We found that members of the depression community generally showed an increased use of positive words and decreased use of negative words as the number of interactions increased,” according to the study. “Despite prolonged interactions with other depressed individuals, r/depression members’ emotion states were found to have become more positive.”

While the outcome looks promising, the researchers warned their results should be interpreted with caution as other factors outside online interaction contribute to a change in depressive symptoms.

“[P]articipation in an online depression community is not the sole factor for improvement or worsening of depressive symptoms,” they wrote. “Although a previous study suggested that emotional support (ie, positive emotion) helps members stay with an online health community, we cannot conclude that participating in online health communities directly caused an improvement in emotional states of members without directly asking the participants.”

Despite the caveats, the University of Utah researchers remain optimistic about their findings.

We consider these results to be an important step toward developing a better understanding of the impact of prolonged participation in an online depression community on emotional health, in addition to providing insights into the long-term psychosocial well-being of member,” the researchers wrote.