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Devices, Bad for Teens? Now They Might Help

Patterns of smartphone use could indicate changes in mental health
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 6, 2019 2:50 PM CST
In this file photo, a teen girl uses her smartphone.   (AP Photo/Haven Daley)
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(Newser) – Rising suicide rates and depression in US 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, the AP reports. 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 Dr. 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 Dr. 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. Read on for details on some apps being experimented with already:

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