Major Life Changes and Behavioral Markers in Social Media: Case of Childbirth

Whether it is the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, move to a new place, or even a traumatic incident such a car accident, people are continually turning to social media platforms to share updates about their joy and happiness, frustration and pain with their friends, families, and audiences.

What can the mining and analysis of such individual-centric behavior tell us? In this paper, we explore the domain of personal health, specifically looking at the effects of a major life event on mood and behavior of individuals. Our main observation is that many of today’s social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, have a large user base, including many who have been using the service for years. The duration of periods of use allows for analyses at time scales long enough to include periods before and after one or more major life events. The life event of focus in this paper is childbirth, and in the context of that, we examine patterns of activity, emotional, and linguistic correlates for postnatal course in a cohort of 85 new mothers. We utilize postings made by new mothers on Twitter for the purpose. Through these analyses, we intend to reveal the kind of behavioral changes new mothers may go through, and the implications of those changes in the light of their behavioral and mental health.

Heat-map visualizations show individual level changes for positive affect (PA) and activation in the postnatal period, in comparison to the prenatal phase. Both PA and activation decrease for some mothers in postpartum.

Heat-map visualizations show individual level changes for positive affect (PA) and activation in the postnatal period, in comparison to the prenatal phase. Both PA and activation decrease for some mothers in postpartum.

Our analyses, both quantitative and qualitative, show that a percentage of new mothers in our dataset (~15%) in the postnatal phase undergo significant behavioral changes compared to other mothers, as well as to an average Twitter user. These changes include (see top figure): reduced activity, reduced positive affect, heightened negative affect, and significant change in use of specific linguistic styles, including interpersonal pronouns. Furthermore, on identifying aspects of language in the Twitter posts that contribute to this change, we find that changes in usage of a narrow span of words (~1-10% of the entire language vocabulary characterizing the content of posts of the new mothers) distinguish new mothers who show significant changes across multiple measures compared to other new mothers. Such minimal yet discriminatory linguistic changes suggest that language-centric diagnostic tools might one day be developed to aid in the identification of potential postpartum disorders, thereby broadly helping to reduce non-invasively the stigma around temporary and persisting challenges with mood and mental illness.

We believe that the motivation, methodology, and direction of this research can be leveraged in a variety of areas. One scenario comprises better identification of forthcoming or new mothers who would benefit from support groups that encourage postpartum social support and provide wellness advice to prenatal and postnatal women. In essence, these groups can strive to provide a venue where new mothers can find each other, trade baby tips, and start up friendships. Broadly, through our proposed behavioral measures, we hope to introduce a line of research that will help promote health-related well-being, by reflecting and even forecasting reactions to a range of major life events, leveraging social media.

For more, see our full paper, Major Life Changes and Behavioral Markers in Social Media: Case of Childbirth.

Munmun De Choudhury, Microsoft Research, Redmond
Scott Counts, Microsoft Research, Redmond
Eric Horvitz, Microsoft Research, Redmond

2 thoughts on “Major Life Changes and Behavioral Markers in Social Media: Case of Childbirth

  1. Hi Munmun, really fascinating research you’ve got going here and looking forward to seeing this talk at CSCW next week! Thanks for sharing it here.

    I’m curious what you see as the potential dangers of using social media for something like this. As you point out in the paper, there are some ethical questions about whether Twitter users are aware they might be tracked and analyzed in this way, and if it is our place as technologists to raise this issue with users and/or their health providers. Whose job do you think it be to run these kinds of tools and monitor cases? How do you think we can adapt these kinds of mechanisms to ensure that people who might benefit from intervention are targeted in a respectful, sensitive way?

    Another thing that your paper made me think about was how we conceptualize life events. The birth of a baby can be a relatively constrained event if you consider only the biological process, but it is of course part of a longer trajectory of psychological and social changes – partnership, intercourse, pregnancy, motherhood, and so on. I’d love to get your take on what constitutes a “life event,” and how we can characterize them in a way that is useful without being overly reductive.

    Thanks again for a fantastic paper, and looking forward to talking to you more on here and at the conference!

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