your instagram aesthetic could reveal whether or not you're depressed

A new study doesn't bode well for the Inkwell filter.

by Hannah Ongley
Aug 8 2017, 6:32pm

Last month, Lady Gaga's Born This Way foundation revealed some eye-opening stats about mental health and social media. An overwhelming majority of young people, according to the study, are using apps like Instagram to talk about mental health. It's not just teens with limited access to relevant services at school: celebrities including Justin Bieber, Kehlani, and Cara Delevingne have all used their popular social accounts to speak out about depression, mental exhaustion, and suicidal tendencies. But what if your mental state could be assessed by looking at likes and photo filters alone? And what if robots were more efficient at detecting potential problems than actual medical professionals?

A new study published in EPJ Data Science suggests that artificial intelligence might be able to detect depression based purely on the aesthetic of your Instagram. "A computer may be able to analyze the average saturation value of a million pixels, but can it pick out a happy selfie from a sad one?" the researchers ask. And if it seems obvious that the black-and-white Inkwell filter is favored by depressed people over the sunny Valencia one — the study found this assumption to hold up — there are more surprising findings too.

Among them: People with depression were less likely to apply filters in general. Their photos normally attracted more comments, though those posted by non-depressed people had more likes. Depressed Instagram users were more likely to post photos with people in them, though the average face count tended to be low. A higher posting frequency was also associated with depression. So while there's nothing wrong with applying a monochromatic shroud over the odd breakout, spending too much time in a world where all imperfections can be edited out is probably not a good idea.

The new findings are consistent with previous research on depression and aesthetics. Patients with a history of depression tend to prefer inky colors like blue and gray, and to interact in smaller social settings — hence the lack of frequent group shots on the feeds of depressed Instagram users.

At the same time, it's crucial to emphasize that the study is suggestive of a possible trend rather than proof of anything definitive. Only 166 people, 71 with a history of depression, agreed to have a total of 43,950 Instagram photos mined in the name of mental health. Researchers also found it far more difficult to detect depression than to rule it out. But the findings could also provide a framework for effective depression screening in today's increasingly digitized society, so the researchers say in the study. Such models may prove particularly useful in areas where mental health services are unavailable or too expensive, requiring people only to share their Instagram handles. 


Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Harry Carr