Private social network ‘Koko’ to give people with depression a boost on bad days

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Millions of Americans battle anxiety disorders and depression, conditions that sap social ties and leave sufferers vulnerable if they lack a viable support system. Now, a group of researchers with ties to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are creating a private social network where people can anonymously share their daily struggles, and also find kinship.

While the forum won’t replace professional treatment or therapy, Robert Morris, who created the system as a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, said it does show promise as a reliable support for people battling stress.

In March, Morris published the results of a clinical trial assessing the effectiveness of the system in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, with co-authors Stephen Schueller, a research assistant professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, and Rosalind Picard, an MIT Media Lab professor and co-founder of Waltham startup Affectiva.

To bring the device to a larger audience, Morris, now based in New York City, is developing the idea into an app named Koko.

For three weeks last year, 84 research subjects tested Morris’s system, called Panoply. Each day they wrote about their struggles, a recognized mental health exercise called “expressive writing” that clinicians recommend patients use to get through a hard day. Other Panoply participants responded with encouraging or commiserating messages.

Meanwhile, a second group of 82 test subjects kept an online journal of their struggles, but did not receive feedback of any kind from each other.

At the end of the study, Morris found Panoply users were writing about their issues much more, and also posted often in response to others. The higher level of engagement, Morris said, signals improved mental health.

The trial has lapsed, but its participants continued to use the system to socialize, with following Morris to his new community, Koko.

“There are people who are using this who would’ve been very upset had I not kept it going,” Morris said.

Participants on Panoply and Koko are trained to write responses in ways that benefit their peers; users must watch a collection of short tutorial videos, directed by Morris, which serve as guideposts for good behavior on the site.

Rebecca Resnik, a licensed psychologist in Bethesda, Md., who follows the connection between depression and social media, said Koko could benefit people in rural areas who do not have access to support groups.

“You’d be able to connect with other people who are going through the same thing, which is very valuable,” Resnik said. “They wouldn’t be rejected for being depressed, they can say whatever they want.”

She added that the network would need safeguards identify people who were suicidal, or in immediate need of professional help.

After stints doing clinical research at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, Morris earned his PhD at MIT exploring technology tools for behavioral and mental health disorders, including depression, Asperger’s, and autism.

The beta test of Koko is by invitation only, but Morris hopes to open it to wider audience later this year. A wait list is available at itskoko.com.

Image via Flickr user Nicola Sapiens De Mitri

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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