It seems like there’s an app for everything these days. Need to light the way with a powerful flashlight? Check. Ned to identify that song you’ve head in the latest episode of your favorite show? Check. Need something to remind you of any upcoming birthdays and holydays? Check. Need to find a restaurant, a cab or a movie screening? Check. Need to count your daily calorie intake? Check.
And now, a newly developed app can tell whether or not a smartphone user is depressed. Health oriented apps have been on the rise in recent years as well educated, health conscious consumers are becoming more and more concerned with what they put into their bodies. But this is the first app to target mental health.
The study was conducted by Northwestern University and suggests that there is a connection between the amount of time a user spends using their smartphone and depression. GPS tracking also contributes with valuable data as it allows experts get a sense of how many locations the user visits per day.
David Mohr, senior author and the Behavioral Intervention Technologies’ director at the Feinberg School of Medicine from Northwestern University, gave a statement to CBS News informing that depression has been diagnosed and evaluated by a very long time using nothing but the symptoms reported by the patient.
Many medical issues have objective data such as biomarkers that help experts assess a patient’s state, however this has been difficult to obtain for patients suffering from depression. This new study has found that behavior, in particular smartphone usage and movements through geographical space, could be looked at as objective data for diagnosing depression.
For their study, Mohr and his colleagues looked at 18 subjects, both men and women, all with the age somewhere between 19 and 58. The reserachers installed an app on their smartphones and tracked them for a period of two (2) weeks. The subjects did not have to answer any daily questions or enter any information into their devices.
But before the app started tracking them they were asked to take a standard questionnaire that psychologists use to measure depression.
What the results showed was that the more time a person spent using their smartphone, the greater their chance of having depression was. On average, a depressed person would spend a total of 68 minutes per day using their device, while a non-depressed person would spend an average of 17 minutes per day using their device.
As expected, individual’s whose GPS data informed that they spent most of their time at home and rarely visit any places, were also a much more likely to be diagnosed with depression. On top of this, having an irregular day to day schedule (leaving for work at different hours each day) also proved to be a sign of depression.
Mohr believes that the app is effective in providing accurate clues as he stated that “This makes sense clinically”. He went on to explain that when someone is depressed, their tendency is to “lose motivation to engage in life and they tend to withdraw”.
The working theory is that these users don’t spend time on their smartphones communicating, but rather playing with apps, and that the relationship between increased usage and a greater level of depression is that people use these devices as a way of distracting themselves from the emotional pain that they’re in. It also helps them avoid stressful situations.
The authors have admitted that further tests need to be carried out due to the small number of subjects, however if future research will reinforce these results, Mohr believes that the app will help on a couple of different fronts. One area where it will be valuable is monitoring individuals who are at risk of developing depression so that they can be properly treated.
Another is that the data the app provides could lead to the development of better, more effective treatments as it offers a view from the inside. What’s more, it could serve as a starting point for developing apps that send behavioral suggestions to people at risk of falling into depression.
The study was published earlier this week, on Wednesday (July 15, 2015), in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
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