Apps Monitoring Mental Health

Studies may differ when reporting just how many teenagers and young adults use smartphones – some list 89%, others say 95% – but it goes without saying that it’s almost impossible to see one without a phone in their hand or close to them. As the number of youths using smartphones increases, just like the number of youths being diagnosed with mental illnesses, some researchers are trying to see if one can help the other.

These researchers explain that the way we use smartphones and if we change habits can indicate if something is happening, such as typing speed and word choice, and the number of ways can be as high as 1,000. As the article states, those with mental illnesses are more likely to only get treatment when it seems like that there is no other option, so having the one device we’re on all the time pick up on symptoms and changes in habits can be beneficial. If successful, these apps can also offer help in real-time like automated text messages or digital alerts to doctors and parents.

Researchers have been recording and noting teen habits and symptoms of depression through the development of an app: one study at Stanford University has 200 teenage participants download an app that asks them three times a day about their mood over the course of two weeks. By combining this with trackers about how the teenager uses their phone, researchers hope to be able to predict if the teenager should be diagnosed with depression.

Another study at the University of Illinois in Chicago is also testing an app for mental health, though it is currently only being tested on adults over the age of 18. Here, items like typing speed, spellcheck use, and the number of keystrokes are monitored and the data is reviewed by the researchers to see if there are any trends that can predict or signal the onset of mood problems.

Meanwhile, UCLA is testing an app for students on campus, where personal sensing data – or the digital traces left behind from phone use – is collected to see if it correlates with any changes in depression symptoms on participants who show signs of the illness on a screening test.

Companies like Google and Mindstrong are also testing apps to see if they can predict someone’s mental health state and help if there are any warning signs of mental illness symptoms.

Those who are currently using these apps have varying feelings: one participant mentions that so many apps are tracking your activity already, so another one is not a big deal, but another said that the monitoring can feel a little bit like “Big Brother.”

How do you feel about apps monitoring your smartphone and social media use and habits for your mental health condition? Would this be something you would use for your child?

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