Tackling insomnia through Twitter

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

  • Published
Couple in bed, SPL
Image caption,
Sleep does not come easily to some people.

Insomniacs will soon be getting help to overcome sleeplessness via social networks.

Researchers aim to find out if networks such as Twitter and Facebook can enhance existing treatments for insomnia, depression and anxiety.

While some of these are already computer-based they typically involve a patient using the system in isolation.

Persistent access to friends, family and therapists may prolong the beneficial effects of treatment.

Computer aid

Many people who suffer bouts of insomnia are helped in their recovery by using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) through which they learn to avoid the patterns of activity and thought that make them poor sleepers.

Some therapists use computer-based learning exercises as a way to embed lessons about more positive patterns of behaviour.

Dr Shaun Lawson, a reader in computer science at Lincoln University who is directing the research project, said existing PC-based CBT packages had not kept up with the changing ways that people use computers.

"The way that people interact with computers these days is not by sitting down in a room on their own looking at a screen," he said. "Today people use computers to connect with each other."

In particular, said Dr Lawson, the growing use of social networks could be a good guide to better ways to build computer-based CBT systems.

"The way that people engage with social networks, how many times they do it in a day, it is very similar to the kind of ways that we would really want people to interact with CBT treatment," he said.

Instead of just having one long session per week, on social networks people interact on a more persistent basis. Some go back to visit several times a day and most check in a few times a week.

Game play

The early stages of the project will study use of social networks to map out this pattern of activity. There are many aspects of this behaviour that could prove useful to the project, said Dr Lawson.

"What's interesting on social networks is that people are more likely to self-disclose on them," he said. People regularly report how they feel via Tweets or status updates in ways that would be odd or inappropriate in normal conversation.

Image caption,
The project hopes to learn tricks from games to encourage people to stick with therapy.

The initial focus of the research will be on people suffering from insomnia because it was a very psychological problem and PC-based CBT has been shown to help ameliorate it.

"Insomnia is isolated as a condition," he said, contrasting it with depression and anxiety that can have very complex causes.

This meant, he said, that it was relatively straightforward to monitor if a patient was getting more or less sleep making it possible rank and rate therapeutic approaches.

When studying social networks, he said, particular attention would be paid to the hugely successful games on social networks, such as FarmVille, and why they trigger such loyalty from players.

"The big question is why do so many people play it?" he said. "That's not well understood."

Unveiling the reasons why the games are such a success could help the researchers as they start to design therapeutic tools that use social media, said Dr Lawson.

"It uses various mechanisms to hook into emotions to keep people coming back to it," he said. "It gives you little tasks to complete but you can only see the benefit of those tasks if you wait a couple of days."

"It's that kind of thinking we're interested in," he said. "Can we create a FarmVille type of game that embeds some of the CBT principles in there?"

Dr Andrew McCulloch, head of the Mental Health Foundation, said computer-based CBT had potential to bring help to people that would otherwise struggle to get it.

"Although CBT is one of the most effective treatments for mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, some patients are still finding it difficult to access therapy," he said.

"The use of online and computerised courses in CBT are therefore becoming increasingly widely used, in order to provide therapy to people with mild to moderate needs."

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