Technology

Smartphone apps are helping researchers detect depression

Subtle shift: Changes in typing speed, voice tone and word choice could signal trouble.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Rising rates of depression in teens and young adults have prompted researchers to ask a provocative question: could the same devices that some people blame for contributing to tech-age angst also be used to detect it?

The idea has sparked a race to develop apps that warn of impending mental health crises. Call it smartphone psychiatry or child psychology 2.0.

Studies have linked heavy smartphone use with worsening teen mental health. But as teens scroll through Instagram and Snapchat, tap out texts or watch YouTube videos, they also leave digital footprints that might offer clues to their psychological well-being.

Changes in typing speed, voice tone, word choice and how often kids stay home could signal trouble, according to preliminary studies.

There might be as many as 1,000 smartphone “biomarkers” for depression, said Thomas Insel, former head of the National Institute of Mental Health and now a leader in the smartphone psychiatry movement.

Researchers are testing experimental apps that use artificial intelligence to try to predict depression episodes or potential self-harm.

“We are tracking the equivalent of a heartbeat for the human brain,” said Alex Leow, an app developer and associate professor of psychiatry and bioengineering at the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus.

At least, that’s the goal. There are technical and ethical kinks to work out including privacy issues and making sure kids grant permission to be monitored so closely. Developers say proven, commercially available mood-detecting apps are likely years but not decades away. “People often feel that these things are creepy,” because of the tech industry’s surreptitious tracking of online habits for commercial purposes, said University of Oregon psychologist Nick Allen.

Informed consent

Using smartphones as mental illness detectors would require informed consent from users to install an app, “and they could withdraw permission at any time,” said Mr. Allen, one of the creators of an app that is being tested on young people who have attempted suicide.

“The biggest hurdle at the moment,” Mr. Allen said, “is to learn about what’s the signal and what’s the noise what is in this enormous amount of data that people accumulate on their phones that is indicative of a mental health crisis.”

People with mental illness typically get treatment “when they’re in crisis and very late in the course of an illness. We want to have a method to identify the earliest signs,” in an objective way, Dr. Insel said.

If smartphones prove to be accurate mood predictors, developers say the ultimate goal would be to use them to offer real-time help, perhaps with automated text messages and links to help lines, or digital alerts to parents, doctors or first responders.

Facebook is already doing just that with what it calls “proactive detection”. After a livestreamed suicide, Facebook trained its AI systems to flag certain words or phrases in online posts that could indicate imminent self-harm.

Friends’ comments expressing concern about the user’s well-being are part of the equation.

“In the last year, we’ve helped first responders quickly reach around 3,500 people globally who needed help,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in November. Facebook has not disclosed outcomes of those cases.

A Stanford University study involving about 200 teens, including kids at risk for depression because of bullying, family circumstances or other life stresses. As part of the research, teens who have been tracked since grade school get an experimental phone app that surveys them three times daily for two weeks with questions about their mood.

Tracking moods

Researchers are combining those answers with passive smartphone data, including how active or sedentary kids are, to identify any changes that might be linked with future depression.

Study participant Laurel Foster, 15, acknowledges feeling stress over academics and “the usual” teen friendship pressures and says depression is rampant at her San Francisco high school. She said using the smartphone app felt a bit like being spied on, but with so many online sites already tracking users’ habits “one more isn’t really a big difference.”

“I feel like it’s good to actually find out what is stressing you,” Ms. Foster said, endorsing the idea of using smartphones to try to answer that question.

At UCLA, as part of a broader effort to battle campus depression launched in 2017, researchers are offering online counselling and an experimental phone app to students who show signs of at least mild depression on a screening test.

About 250 freshmen agreed to use the app in the first year. Personal sensing data collected from the app is being analysed to see how it correlates with any worsening or improvement in depression symptoms seen in Internet therapy.

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Printable version | Oct 23, 2020 1:13:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/smartphone-apps-are-helping-researchers-detect-depression/article25914368.ece

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