Tweets reveal emotions, behavior patterns of people who suffer from ADHD

Tweets from people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) tend to include words like “hate” or “disappointed” incorporated into messages about lack of focus or failure, according to findings published by a Penn team in the Journal of Attention Disorders. These posts, many of which are submitted late at night or in the early morning hours, often reveal mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion.

“On social media, where you can post your mental state freely, you get a lot of insight into what these people are going through,” says Sharath Chandra Guntuku, a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Arts & SciencesWorld Well-Being Project and the Penn Medicine Center for Digital Health. “In brief 30- or 60-minute sessions, clinicians might not get all manifestations of the condition, but on social media, you have the full spectrum.” 

To better understand the online habits of people with ADHD, Guntuku and colleagues collected 1.3 million publicly available tweets posted by almost 1,400 users with a self-reported diagnosis, as well as an equivalent control set that matched the original group in age, gender, and duration of overall social media activity. They then ran models looking at factors like personality and posting frequency. 

Some of what surfaced confirmed what’s already known in the scientific literature. For example, it’s not uncommon for those with ADHD to describe using marijuana for medicinal purposes.

The Penn scientists also made several novel discoveries. For one, people with the condition tend to post during what are typically considered nighttime sleeping hours, midnight through 6 a.m. Secondly, they experience more mood swings and negativity—what’s clinically called “emotional dysregulation”—and their tweets line up with these pendulum dips and jumps.

“They tend to have problems self-regulating,” says Lyle Ungar, a professor of computer and information science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, who was involved in the research. This could partially explain why they enjoy social media’s quick feedback loop, he adds. A well-timed or intriguing tweet could yield a positive response within minutes, propelling continued use of the online outlet.

Unlike better-studied conditions such as depression, which have well-known clinical facets and proven treatment options, there’s much more to learn about ADHD. Guntuku and Ungar say they hope their findings help clinicians treat such patients more successfully.

“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,” Ungar says.  

To that end, future plans include building condition-specific apps that incorporate information about the individual using it, such as how severe that person’s case of ADHD is or what triggers that person’s symptoms. The applications will also include mini-interventions; they might recommend that someone who can’t sleep turn off his or her phone an hour before bed, or do an easy breathing exercise to relieve anxiety or stress.

“If you’re prone to certain problems, certain things set you off,” Ungar says. “The idea is to help set you back on track.”

Twitter ADHD