Heart Attacks and Vines: mHealth and How Twitter Can Be Good

Just about everyone has, at some point or another, been in a horribly irrational and endless internet war. I once got into an hours-long Twitter argument with a complete stranger who was maligning a friend of mine about something he wrote. She took a line completely out of context and used it to smear his name across multiple forums, even though she was misinterpreting his meaning. Even after I got her to admit it wasn’t a reflection of his personal outlook, but a commentary on an article, she still blamed him for writing something that people “could take out of context and use for bad ends.”

Obviously, I am still angry, and this was two years ago. Social media and the internet can do that – can get us into inane fights with strangers over nothing. To some, this can increase stress levels to the point where people think it is unhealthy. I disagree. I think (and recent studies have backed this up) that the benefits of mobile technology and health apps – known together as “mHealth” – have driven a huge net benefit and even social media can help us figure out if we are healthy or not.

Twitter and Heart Disease: Correlation and Causation

This premise comes from a study released last week that said Twitter can be used to predict heart attacks. That’s the sensationalist headline, anyway. You can’t actually predict if someone is going to have a heart attack caused by tweeting, but the study generally showed that the amount of “angry tweets” correlated with heart disease.

Really, the study is a bit sketchy. The authors even admit that it isn’t the people who are tweeting angrily that are dying of heart disease, but their neighbors, which they chalk up to a negative environment revealed by Twitter. According to one of the authors, “that means if many of your neighbors are angry, you are more likely to die of heart disease.” The study seems like it is correlating two distinct data points – heart disease and angry tweets – and trying to draw a line between them. It isn’t necessarily untrue, but there are a lot of other variables to take into account.

That being said, the rough correlation is interesting, and it raises a larger point about mHealth and the use of social media. After all, if people are angrier in general and this is ill-caught simply by the analysis of tweets, it still helps to identify a general problem and encourage a solution. (It is hard to identify “angry words” because someone could tweet “I hate the Packers!” and someone else “I hate myself” and those are two very different moods). There do seem to be areas of the country where heart disease is more prevalent and where people are angrier, at least on social media. Of course, it’s possible that people are so angry simple because so many people they know are having heart attacks, but it is still an interesting piece of data that can inform our general health outlook.

Self-Reporting: The Actual Role of Twitter and mHealth

Twitter is a lot of things: a wonderful news aggregator, a great way to understand what a segment of people care about at any given moment, and, most importantly, a secret way to self-report. No one thinks of it as a secret, of course, but by looking at tweets you can understand something about the health and mental well-being of a person.

That’s the great thing about the mHealth revolution and the heart of the matter – all our wearable tech, all our health apps and all our portable devices are essentially tools for self-reporting. They collect data and either give it to us or a program to analyze, and then the program reports to us. This is data we wouldn’t have been able to collect on our own – and certainly stuff that very few of us could analyze.

People who are active on Twitter broadcast reams of information every day. And it’s the kind of info that doctors and social scientists can use to analyze, not just personal attitude and health trends but societal ones, in general. At least on the surface, I think the Twitter/heart attack connection was crude, but it points in the right direction about figuring out general states of being.

There is a long way to go, of course. People are still understandably concerned about their privacy, and that is a huge barrier for mHealth data collection. But this is a growing and important trend, and as we better understand how to interpret the vast amounts of vague and surface-level data presented to us by social media, the more significant the impact mobile technology will be able to have on our health. Stay tuned for more insights in the ClickAway Blog.

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