Predicting eating disorders from Internet activity

Shiri Sadeh-Sharvit, Ellen E. Fitzsimmons-Craft, C. Barr Taylor, Elad Yom-Tov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations

Abstract

Objective: Eating disorders (EDs) compromise the health and functioning of affected individuals, but it can often take them several years to acknowledge their illness and seek treatment. Early identification of individuals with EDs is a public health priority, and innovative approaches are needed for such identification and ultimate linkage with evidence-based interventions. This study examined whether Internet activity data can predict ED risk/diagnostic status, potentially informing timely interventions. Method: Participants were 936 women who completed a clinically validated online survey for EDs, and 231 of them (24.7%) contributed their Internet browsing history. A machine learning algorithm used key attributes from participants' Internet activity histories to predict their ED status: clinical/subclinical ED, high risk for an ED, or no ED. Results: The algorithm reached an accuracy of 52.6% in predicting ED risk/diagnostic status, compared to random decision accuracy of 38.1%, a relative improvement of 38%. The most predictive Internet search history variables were the following: use of keywords related to ED symptoms and websites promoting ED content, participant age, median browsing events per day, and fraction of daily activity at noon. Discussion: ED risk or clinical status can be predicted via machine learning with moderate accuracy using Internet activity variables. This model, if replicated in larger samples where it demonstrates stronger predictive value, could identify populations where further assessment is merited. Future iterations could also inform tailored digital interventions, timed to be provided when target online behaviors occur, thereby potentially improving the well-being of many individuals who may otherwise remain undetected.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1526-1533
Number of pages8
JournalInternational Journal of Eating Disorders
Volume53
Issue number9
DOIs
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020

Keywords

  • Internet activity
  • browsing history
  • eating disorders
  • online screening

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