How tracking your smartphone data could help diagnose depression

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We tend to think that people monitoring our smartphone data is just a way for evil corporations to sell us stuff. But scientists have discovered that tracking the way we use our smartphones could be a really good method for diagnosing potential depression.

For their study, researchers recorded the phone usage of 28 men and women over a period of two weeks – and tracked their locations every five minutes.

When tested beforehand, half the group showed no sign of being depressed – while the other half had symptoms ranging from mild to severe depression.

Here’s what the results showed.

  • People who spend more time on their phones have a greater chance of being depressed.
  • The average daily usage for depressed individuals was found to be around 68 minutes, compared with 17 minutes for happier souls.

    “People are likely, when on their phones, to avoid thinking about things that are troubling – painful feelings or difficult relationships,” said lead researcher Professor Mohr.

    “It’s an avoidance behaviour we see in depression.”

  • People who spend more time at home – or in fewer locations – also have a greater chance of being depressed.
  • Smartphone used

    This was measured via GPS tracking in test subjects’ phones.

    “The data showing depressed people tended not to go many places reflects the loss of motivation seen in depression,” said Prof Mohr.

    “When people are depressed, they tend to withdraw and don’t have the motivation or energy to go out and do things.”

  • Tracking phone data gives a surprisingly accurate diagnosis.
  • The US team from Northwestern University was able to identify people with depressive symptoms with 87% accuracy.

    Amazingly, the phone data turned out to be a more reliable way of detecting depression than asking participants questions about how sad they were feeling on a scale of one to 10.

  • The research still needs to look at exactly HOW people are using their phones.
  • Smartphone usage

    The study did not look at how people were using their phones. Obviously, you might be spending a lot of time on your smartphone arranging your social life or posting smiley snaps from your latest holiday.

    However, Prof Mohr suspects that people who spent the most time on them were surfing the web or playing games, rather than talking to friends.

    This is a promising new way to detect signs of depression passively – without asking patients emotionally probing questions.

    Prof Mohr said: “The significance of this is we can detect if a person has depressive symptoms and the severity of those symptoms without asking them any questions. We now have an objective measure of behaviour related to depression. And we’re detecting it passively.

    “Phones can provide data unobtrusively and with no effort on the part of the user.”

    The findings are reported in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

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