Google Searches and Mental Health Trends

Think Google is simply a tool for information searches? It’s becoming an increasingly thought-provoking instrument for researchers, especially when search patterns are analyzed.

A team of researchers led by John Ayers at San Diego State University examined Google search data from 2006 to 2010 and found an intriguing pattern linking mental illness queries and seasons. After combing through search data for mental-health terms like schizophrenia, bulimia, bipolar, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and others, they found that all mental health queries followed seasonal patterns, with peaks in the winter and troughs in the summer.

When comparing search data in the United States to search data in Australia, where the seasons are reversed, the seasonal data held up – both Americans and Australians searched for information on these terms more during their respective winters than summers. In fact, mental health queries in the U.S. were found to be 14 percent higher in the winter and 11 percent higher in Australia during its winter.

Queries about specific disorders also had their own seasonality – queries about eating disorders, schizophrenia, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder were higher in winter, while searches for anxiety seem least affected by seasons, varying just 7 percent in the U.S. and 15 percent in Australia between summer and winter months.

Although the researchers emphasize that Google searches are just searches for information and do not necessarily reflect a diagnosis, this may shed important light onto how the prevalence of mental illnesses change during seasons. Furthermore, while most studies rely on participants to answer truthfully, Web searches do not have that same hurdle – they may have the advantage of reflecting patterns, providing real-time monitoring of mental health problems, and surveying population trends.

For more information about this study, see the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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