How A Facebook-Style Social Network Could Treat Depression

An MIT researcher is showing that support and even therapy can be crowdsourced online–if you create the right environment.

How A Facebook-Style Social Network Could Treat Depression
[Illustration: donatas1205 via Shutterstock]

Can social networks help people with depression? At first blush, that might sound like a strange question. Platforms like Facebook have been linked with making us feel worse about ourselves, not better. Researchers say they cause us to compare our lives with other people’s, which is generally a terrible idea from a mental health point of view.


But then the network Rob Morris is trying to build is a little different from those regular offerings. His Koko app is more like a big self-help group, where the emphasis is on helping other people, not showing off your most recent photos. Most of all, it’s designed to help us through everyday challenges and disappointments, the sorts of things that can seem like bigger problems than they really are, if we don’t keep proper perspective.

“The idea is every time we have a stressful situation, there are innumerable things we tell ourselves and that story can have huge implications for our well-being,” says Morris, who started developing the app as a PhD student at MIT. “The crowd [on Koko] might come up with a whole bunch of interpretations that are wholly plausible, but way less negative.”

For example: your boss says she wants you to come into her office for “a chat.” You think she had a mean look on her face and that her tone of voice was menacing. You freak out. You think she’s about to fire you. You go into a funk, and start questioning your abilities, all before knowing what your boss actually wants to talk about.

That’s when you might go on Koko and post something about the incident. The crowd would respond, naturally, by pointing out that could be many reasons for your boss’s mean face (she’s having a bad day, she’s trying out a new management technique, whatever). And you, hopefully, would feel reassured.

“When we’re stressed, we have trouble coming up with creative interpretations to what’s happening to us, particularly if you’re prone to depression and anxiety,” Morris says. “We’re levering each other’s collective intelligence to come up with many different ways to construe the world around us, so we can have a more positive outlook.”

The technical term for this is “cognitive behavioral therapy,” which focuses on how we think about things as much as what we think about them. The crowd is playing the part of a therapist who analyzes “bugs in our thinking”–thought processes that aren’t rational or helpful.


For his PhD, Morris developed a web-based version of the social network called Panoply. In a peer-reviewed study, he showed the method was more effective than some other forms of psychotherapy. The app is now available on an invite-only basis; Morris will probably release the public version this Fall.

We’ll have to see if people really want to help each other out online, but Morris makes a good case for why they might. He thinks assisting other people in fixing faulty thinking is itself therapy for the person offering the advice. “As you’re helping other people, you’re learning techniques and rehearsing them over and over. That’s an interesting interaction idea that I don’t believe has existed before in the mental app space,” he says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.