Studying Expressions of Loneliness in Individuals Using Twitter: An Observational Study

Abstract [from journal]

Objectives: Loneliness is a major public health problem and an estimated 17% of adults aged 18-70 in the USA reported being lonely. We sought to characterise the (online) lives of people who mention the words 'lonely' or 'alone' in their Twitter timeline and correlate their posts with predictors of mental health.

Setting and Design: From approximately 400 million tweets collected from Twitter in Pennsylvania, USA, between 2012 and 2016, we identified users whose Twitter posts contained the words 'lonely' or 'alone' and compared them to a control group matched by age, gender and period of posting. Using natural-language processing, we characterised the topics and diurnal patterns of users' posts, their association with linguistic markers of mental health and if language can predict manifestations of loneliness. The statistical analysis, data synthesis and model creation were conducted in 2018-2019.

Primary Outcome Measures: We evaluated counts of language features in the users with posts including the words lonely or alone compared with the control group. These language features were measured by (a) open-vocabulary topics, (b) Linguistic Inquiry Word Count (LIWC) lexicon, (c) linguistic markers of anger, depression and anxiety, and (d) temporal patterns and number of drug words. Using machine learning, we also evaluated if expressions of loneliness can be predicted in users' timelines, measured by area under curve (AUC).

Results: Twitter timelines of users (n=6202) with posts including the words lonely or alone were found to include themes about difficult interpersonal relationships, psychosomatic symptoms, substance use, wanting change, unhealthy eating and having troubles with sleep. Their posts were also associated with linguistic markers of anger, depression and anxiety. A random forest model predicted expressions of loneliness online with an AUC of 0.86.

Conclusions: Users' Twitter timelines with the words lonely or alone often include psychosocial features and can potentially have associations with how individuals express and experience loneliness. This can inform low-resource online assessment for high-risk individuals experiencing loneliness and interventions focused on addressing morbidities in this condition.