Living in the Age of Anxiety as Revealed in Google’s Big Data

I was surprised today with a new trend topic on Twitter: #prayfortheworld. People around the globe are praying for help, looking for hope and answers about what is happening in the world today: the hurricanes, earthquakes, and political tension.

Jesus prophesied that distress, perplexity, and fear are signs of His second coming (Luke 21:25, 26). The prophet Daniel adds that the end of time will be a time of trouble, such as never was (Daniel 12:1). This article shows how anxiety has become a growing pandemic in our society. To this end, I analyzed Big Data composed by trillions of searches made in Google. Although Google activity demonstrates that we live in the age of anxiety, the Bible gives the method for living a life of hope and peace. 

Digging into Google’s Big Data

As a data scientist, I get excited about the possibilities of understanding people’s psyches by means of data science. Data science is about extracting knowledge from data (1). People daily make searches on Google, the dominant search engine in the US, which leave behind digital traces that can be analyzed. Big Data from Google searches are useful to understand trends that are hardly or even impossible to be understood in any other way (e.g. by means of expensive or error-prone surveys).

Since 2004, Google search rates for the word “anxiety” in the US have more than doubled as shown in Figure 1. A similar pattern can be seen when analyzing data in searches from the whole world. In the same period, the three US cities with the highest number of searches for the word anxiety were Pittsburgh, Albuquerque, and Boston. In words of Nitshu Abebe in his article entitled America’s New ‘Anxiety’ Disorder, “At this point, it’s difficult to imagine a slice of time whose resident humans would not agree with the notion that their lives were more hectically modern — more anxiety-inducing, more in need of the occasional benzo — than any before” (2). The problem is so big that according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), 18.1% of adults in the US have a 12-month anxiety prevalence (3) — approximately 40 million adults.  

 Figure 1. Searches for “anxiety” in the US from 2004 until now

Figure 1. Searches for “anxiety” in the US from 2004 until now

According to an article in The New York Times, Google searches for “anxiety in the morning” have risen threefold over the past decade and searches for “anxiety at night” have risen ninefold. Also, searches for anxiety tend to be higher in places with lower levels of education, lower median incomes and a larger part of the population living in rural areas (4). Besides, Google Correlate, a tool created by Google that allows to find queries with a similar pattern to a target data series, shows that there is a very high correlation in US data from 2014 to 2017 between the term anxiety and drugs related to Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). 

Have you lately felt worried, nervous, or unease about an uncertain future? According to Google, in the last 5 years, Americans tend to look more for “uncertainty” in Google during September (see Figure 2). Maybe, this result may have a relationship with the anxiety of a new academic year. However, there is a considerable reduction in the number of searches for this term during Christmas Season, a time to enjoy family time. 

 Figure 2. Searches for “uncertainty” in the US in the past 5 years

Figure 2. Searches for “uncertainty” in the US in the past 5 years

Americans are anxious about the end of this tumultuous world. US searches from 2014 about the term “end of the world” have dramatically increased around dates in which the end of the world was miss-predicted May 2011, December 2012, and September 2017 (see Figure 3). Also, it is interesting that during the last 12 months, searches of the terms “second coming” and “Bible prophecy” in the US arose in August and September 2017 as shown in Figure 4. During that time, several natural disasters hit North America.

 Figure 3. Searches for “end of the world” in the US from 2004 until now. The “Note” labels indicate milestones in which Google improved data processing in trends analysis

Figure 3. Searches for “end of the world” in the US from 2004 until now. The “Note” labels indicate milestones in which Google improved data processing in trends analysis

 Figure 4. Searches for “second coming” (in blue) and “Bible prophecy” (in red) in the US in the past 12 months

Figure 4. Searches for “second coming” (in blue) and “Bible prophecy” (in red) in the US in the past 12 months

According to what the Bible says, we can be sure that the second coming of Jesus Christ is imminent. However, Christ Himself clearly stated that no one knows the day or hour of His second coming (Matthew 24:36). In fact, according to Google there is a very high correlation in US data from 2014 to 2017 between the searching terms “end of the world”, “Matthew 24 36” and “Mark 13 32”. According to these results, we can infer that it is very possible that Americans who look for “end of the world” on Google, also look for answers in the Bible about this topic. However, Google Correlate also returns a high correlation between the terms “end of the world” and “the world is not ending”. It seems apparent that the false prophecies about the end of the world have caused more harm than not. 

Living a Life of Hope Amidst an Anxious Culture

Although data science can help us discover hidden patterns related to anxiety, it does not give the answer to this problem. Jesus says: “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Yes, Jesus is the answer for living a life of hope and peace. Although He said that in this world we will have trouble, He has overcome the world! (John 16:33). In the middle of the reigning anxiety in our culture, God wants you to be sure that He has plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). God will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed (Daniel 2:44). Not far, He will wipe away every tear from your eyes; there shall be no more death, no sorrow, nor crying. In God’s kingdom there shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away (Revelation 21:4). Our task now, as Christ’s ambassadors, is to share these good news, to proclaim a message of peace, to bring good tidings, and to proclaim salvation to those who live in anxiety around us.

REFERENCES:

1. Vasant Dhar, “Data Science and Prediction,” Communications of the ACM 56, no. 12 (2013): 64-73.

2. Nitsuh Abebe, “America’s New ‘Anxiety’ Disorder,” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/18/magazine/americas-new-anxiety-disorder.html

3. National Institute of Mental Health, “Any Anxiety Disorder Among Adults,” https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-anxiety-disorder-among-adults.shtml

4. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, “Fifty States of Anxiety,” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/opinion/sunday/fifty-states-of-anxiety.html


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Dr. Harvey Alférez is a professor at the School of Engineering and Technology, Universidad de Montemorelos, Mexico. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science (Summa Cum Laude) from Universitat Politècnica de València (Spain). His research interests include Data Science and Big Data. He has contributed to publications in top journals, book chapters, and international conferences (Scopus h-index: 6). Dr. Alférez enjoys playing the piano and family time with his wife, Doris, and sons, Johan and Daniel. His personal website is: www.harveyalferez.com