Jennifer Golbeck Ph.D.

Jennifer Golbeck Ph.D.

Your Online Secrets

Bipolar Disorder Leads to Poor Online Social Interaction

Bipolar disorder affects social interactions online as well as offline.

Posted Sep 21, 2014

 Bipolar disorder can have dramatic impacts on the social lives of people who live with it. Previous research has shown that, as the disease progresses, patients have increasing difficulty in their social interaction with family and friends. They can also become more isolated as their social skills decline.

Online social interaction, especially through social media, offers a different way of communicating. Scientists have found that people who have anxiety or other difficulty interacting in person can benefit from social media, texting, and other online communication because it is asynchronous and less intimidating.

But new research shows that people with bipolar disorder have problems in their online interactions that echo their difficulties offline [1].

Researchers studied 30 patients with bipolar disorder (BD) and compared them to 30 control subjects. They found that patients with BD had fewer friends offline compared with the control group, and they also had fewer friends online. Not only did BD patients have fewer Facebook friends overall, but they had fewer close friends on Facebook. This shows that it's not just that BD patients restrict their connections in online social networks to their stronger relationships; they have weaker social interactions online overall.  

BD patients also had poorer knowledge of social media terminology and less internet experience. BD patients used the internet less than would be expected for people of a similar age. This suggests the benefits online socializing offers some people, like those with social anxiety, are not helpful to BD patients. 

The researchers' online results echo previous offline research that showed BD patients had lower satisfaction with life and poorer relationships.

I am a computer scientist, and these results are interesting from a technology perspective in a few ways. First, it shows that interaction online is echoing problems these patients are having offline. That is not always the case – as I mentioned, for some people with social problems, online interaction is a safe haven where they interact more successfully. Unfortunately, social networking websites do not help DB patients with their issues.

This can serve as a motivation to social network designers to create new tools or interfaces that will support these patients. Now that we know that there are problems for these users, the next step is to study what features could help them interact more successfully. Then, those features could be built in to sites like Facebook or into sites designed for these types of patients to use. Understanding the needs of different user groups is always a goal of social network researchers, and this research gives us a starting point to potentially help BD patients.

[1] Martini, Thaís, et al. "Bipolar Disorder Affects Behavior and Social Skills on the Internet." PloS one 8.11 (2013): e79673.

Image Credit Bill Strain

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