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Using Twitter to Identify and Understand ADHD Behaviors


Researchers studied tweets from people with ADHD to identify factors like personality and posting frequency, which may hold clues to understanding and treating patients with the disorder.

Twitter can reveal a great deal about people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), announced the University of Pennsylvania in a press release.

Seeking to understand what people with ADHD spend their time talking about, researchers from the university turned to Twitter.

“On social media, where you can post your mental state freely, you get a lot of insight into what these people are going through, which might be rare in a clinical setting,” said coauthor Sharath Chandra Guntuku, PhD, postdoctoral researcher in World Well-Being Project at the School of Arts and Sciences and the Penn Medicine Center for Digital Health, in the statement. “In brief 30- or 60- minute sessions with patients, clinicians might not get all manifestations of the condition, but on social media you have the full spectrum.”

The researchers collected 1.3 million publicly available tweets from approximately 1400 users who had self-reported diagnoses of ADHD. They also included a control group that matched the ADHD group in age, gender, and duration of overall social media activity. To analyze the tweets, the researchers utilized models that looked at factors such as personality and posting frequency.

Researchers found that people with ADHD tended to post tweets related to lack of focus, self-regulation, intention, and failure. They also expressed mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion, often using words like “hate,” “disappointed,” “cry,” and “sad” more frequently than the control group. People with ADHD typically tweeted from midnight to 6 AM.

Because people with ADHD showed more mood swings and negativity, this could explain why they like social media’s feedback loop, said researcher and coauthor Lyle Ungar, PhD, professor of Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania. A well-timed or intriguing tweet can lead to a positive response towards the individual.

In addition to revealing new information about the behaviors of people with ADHD, some of the findings also support what’s already known in the ADHD literature.

For example, many of the people in the ADHD group tweeted about using marijuana for medicinal purposes. Study coauthor Russell Ramsay, PhD, co-director of Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program and associate professor of clinical psychology and psychiatry, Perelman School of Medicine, said this is something he has observed in his ADHD patients.

However, the researchers acknowledged that there are limitations to the study. The 50-50 split of ADHD to non-ADHD study participants is not applicable to life because only about 8% of adults in the US have ADHD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In addition, people in the study self-reported an ADHD diagnosis rather than having the determination from a physician or medical record.

Despite the limitations, the authors are confident that these findings have the potential to aid clinicians in understanding and treating patients with ADHD.

“The facets of better-studied conditions like depression are pretty well studied,” said Ungar in the statement. “ADHD is less well studied. Understanding the components that some people have or don’t have, the range of coping mechanisms that people use — that all leads to a better understanding of the condition."

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