Investigators at Boston Children’s Hospital and pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck will collaborate on a new study aimed at using social media platforms to better understand insomnia. The researchers aim to contribute new, meaningful information to the scientific community on the predictors of sleep deprivation based on social media-related behaviors, personal online associations, and other social and demographic information.

John Brownstein, PhD, co-founder of HealthMap and member of Boston Children’s Informatics Program, will lead the project team at the hospital.

Insomnia is thought to affect some 58% of Americans at least a few nights per week; 30% of Americans have some form of chronic sleep disorder. However, little is known about the true burden of insomnia, as diagnosis largely relies on self-reporting.

As Americans continue to spend more time online, harnessing publicly available information from social media networks, like Twitter and Facebook, may allow researchers to identify individuals who exhibit insomnia symptoms and could potentially aid in improving patient diagnosis.

“This project is using new data sources to carry out basic epidemiology research on sleep disorders and better understand the patient experience of insomnia,” Brownstein says in a release. “The social media content people produce could teach us a great deal about factors driving sleep disorders, and help uncover new populations of insomnia patients that haven’t yet been described.”

The researchers will combine Twitter data, including tweet content and frequency, as well as Facebook data—such as “likes,” user analytics (eg, log in/out times, time spent on site), and demographics—to identify a sample of users likely experiencing insomnia and describe differences between these individuals and average Twitter or Facebook users.

That description will serve as the basis of a new social media-based definition of insomnia, which the team will validate in a subsample of social media users by administering a standard survey.

“We are very interested in pushing the boundaries of the science of social media and to see this as an opportunity to better understand the patient voice, in this case, how people share information about sleep problems and their day-to-day impact on quality of life,” says Sachin Jain, MD, MBA, chief medical information and innovation officer at Merck.

“This data source could offer a powerful tool to monitor the sleep health of a city, state or country, and it may offer additional tools in the prevention or treatment of insomnia,” Jain adds.