Modeling Stress with Social Media Around Incidents of Gun Violence on College Campuses

This post summarizes our full paper co-authored with Munmun De Choudhury. The paper will be presented at the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW).

“Seek shelter in a secure location until further notice. Lock all doors and windows. Take immediate Action Now!”

An alert text that I received from the Georgia Tech emergency alert system at 11:30 PM on September 16th, 2017. Immediately, I responded by locking my doors and windows, and contacting my close friends on campus to see if everything was alright. I found on the Reddit page of my college (r/gatech), that apparently there was an active shooter on campus and gunshots were heard. Eventually, we came to know about the tragic death of a student owing to police shooting. We were shocked and traumatized by this incident.

This incident made me live through the stressful and terrifying moments that the college students undergo during crisis events such as gun violence or student death on campuses. There has been a rise in the number of violent incidents, ranging from mass shootings to acts of terrorism. Between 2013 and 2016, 76 incidents of gun violence have occurred in the U.S. college campuses, resulting in more than 100 casualties. These traumatic and violent events can have profound impact on college students’ perceived stress, and in turn impact their ability to cope, and regulate their emotion. In extreme cases, this can also lead to long-term negative mental health outcomes, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, acute stress disorders, borderline personality disorder, or adjustment disorder.

Our CSCW paper on “Modeling Stress with Social Media Around Incidents on gun Violence on College Campuses” leverages social media as a passive sensor to broadly study the evolution of stress around gun violence incidents on college campuses. In particular, we focus on 12 gun violence incidents on college campuses in U.S. in the past 5 years, and obtain our dataset from the online communities of these colleges on Reddit. We build a machine learning classifier for inferring stress expression in Reddit posts, which achieves an accuracy of 82%. Employing this classifier on our Reddit dataset, we study the distinctive changes in the stress expression over time and language in these college subreddits around the gun violence incidents.

Why social media?

Traditionally, crisis rehabilitation and mental health support efforts on college campuses have relied on self-reported survey instruments. While they are very accurate in certain snapshots, survey data suffers from subjective assessments, recall and hindsight biases. These surveys are often retrospective and reactive in nature, in a sense that they are conducted after the crisis has occurred and individuals are displaced in space and time from the actual occurrence of the events.

The homepage page of r/gatech subreddit: An online community of Georgia Tech

In recent years, social media has become a popular medium to share and interact among the youth. To researchers, social media provides an inexpensive and unobtrusive means of gathering both present and historical data of individuals in their natural settings. Relatedly, many U.S. colleges have their dedicated subreddit communities on Reddit where the students discuss and share about their personal and academic lives.

We study the evolution of stress in the college subreddits of 12 U.S. college campuses that witnessed a gun violence in the last five years (see Table 1).

Table 1: 12 gun-violence events in the U.S. college campuses that were considered in our study.

Changes in Stress Expressions over Time:

For the gun violence event at UCSB, Figure 1, 2, 3 (clockwise): Evolution of stress expressions compared to previous (control) year, Evolution of stress as mean differences (z-scores) before and after the event, Change in periodicities of stress expressions before and after the event.

We compare the variability of stress in a two month period before and after the gun violence incident (Treatment period), and the same period in the previous year (Control period). We notice a general uptick in the volume of high stress posts immediately after the event. However, this effect gradually restores to a more general trend in the stress expressions. This is evident in Figure 1 and 2 for the gun violence event that occurred in UCSB. The peak in stress in the Treatment year, as compared to the Control year supports a weak causal claim: that the campus gun violence contributes to an increased stress immediately following the incident. We also found that the periodicity of stress expressions is disrupted following the event (see Figure 3).

Changes in Stress Expressions in Language:

Figure 4: Words used before and after gun violence events on all 12 college subreddits.

We find variability in the psycholinguistic trends that also situate with prior work related to expressiveness around crises. We also observe a decline in generally used college-related words (eg. class), and a rise in words (eg. gun) related to the events around the gun violence incidents (Figure 4).

Theoretical and Psychological Implications

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory [1] argued that external reality, such as, traumatic events can have profound effects on an individual’s psyche, and can be considered to be the cause of emotional upheaval, stress, and traumatic neurosis. He suggested that the personal impact of the trauma, the inability to find conscious expressions for it, and the unpreparedness of the individual can breach their stimulus barrier and overwhelm their defense mechanisms. Our work examines these theoretical constructs in a quantitative, data-driven manner.

Our findings suggest that although students experience stress throughout the year because of academic and personal reasons, their stress expressions considerably change after a gun violence incident. In essence our findings suggest that stress as a construct is prevalent across time but its nature changes drastically around a critical crisis incident. Our results are also consistent with prior work on crisis about the emotional experiences, such as anxiety and stress, are often relieved well after the original traumatic events have occurred, although the frequency and the intensity of emotional reliving usually decreases over time.

Practical and Design Implications

Our computational techniques provide a robust mechanism to quantify the impacts of a crisis, via the community responses. Our techniques will find use as unobtrusive sensors of stress and its linguistic and temporal changes during crises. This work can be immensely valuable to crisis rehabilitation efforts, including how specific campuses may adopt policies or strategies to enhance the idiosyncratic aspects relating to the community, that exacerbate or protect against stress. Our research bears implications for designing technologies to support improving mental health provisions for campus populations during times of upheavals. A significant challenge for college administrators is providing adequate mental health services, such as around aggravated stress levels, in a proactive, real-time manner. These efforts become even more difficult in the face of violent events on campus, due to the disruption in everyday life and activities on campus. Our work shows promise in enabling technology-assisted means to tackle these challenges. With tools that leverage our methods, college authorities can learn about the pervasiveness of stress following a crisis event and the extent to which its normal pattern has been disrupted. This can enable them in making more informed decisions about the nature of crisis communication that should take place on campus, such as balancing informational alerts with adequately sensitive and focused assurance. Additionally, administrators will be able to reach a better understanding of students’ counseling or rehabilitation resource needs.

[1] Freud, S. (1955). Beyond the pleasure principle. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVIII (1920–1922): Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Group Psychology and Other Works.

Full Paper Citation:

Koustuv Saha and Munmun De Choudhury. 2017. Modeling Stress with Social Media Around Incidents of Gun Violence on College Campuses. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 1, CSCW, Article 92 (December 2017), 27 pages. DOI: