Insomnia? Your tweets may show it

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Can’t sleep? Your cranky tweets could call you out.

Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital and Merck and Co. say that Twitter users who say they have trouble sleeping display a signature pattern in their messages. And, it’s distinct enough that they can spot that pattern above the noise of Twitter, they explain in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

“I would have thought that these are people who can’t put their phone down,” said Jared Hawkins, a researcher at Children’s who co-authored the new study. He expected to find restless technophiles who turned chattily to social media to pass the quiet hours in which they lay awake.

But the profile turned out different: “I was surprised to see that these users were the opposite,” Hawkins said.

The team found that people who self-identify as having a sleep disorder generally are less active on Twitter and have fewer friends and followers.

When they do tweet, they tend to post more often than regular people during the evenings and, perhaps not surprisingly, are comparatively more active at night. There was also a difference in tone: “They’re crankier in the content that they post,” compared to other well-rested posters, Hawkins said.

Only public tweets were included in the analysis, which included posts from January to May 2014. The software searched Twitter for mention of phrases like “can’t sleep” and “insomnia” as well as references to drugs like “Ambien.” The researchers used such references as a flag and analyzed the Twitter profiles of accounts that showed up.

This study is the latest in a growing body of research that suggests it’s possible to use public social media posts as a tracker of health conditions.

Other researchers at Children’s have shown how Yelp reviews could serve as a digital trail for restaurants that were guilty of health violations, and how tweets about sniffling and runny noses combined with news items could provide a birds-eye view of the severity and geography of a flu season.

Elsewhere, researchers have shown how they can flag individuals who may be at risk and offer support by spotting early signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and postpartum depression on social media posts.

Within this evolving field, the new study is a proof-of-concept that at least some people who have trouble sleeping can be identified earlier, and maybe one day also be helped.

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