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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

(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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  • A Stanford University study involves 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. 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.
  • At UCLA, as part of a broader effort to battle campus depression launched in 2017, researchers are offering online counseling 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 analyzed to see how it correlates with any worsening or improvement in depression symptoms seen in internet therapy.
  • At the University of Illinois' Chicago campus, researchers studying depression and mania in bipolar disorder are using crowdsourcing to test their experimental phone app. Anyone can download the free app, and nearly 2,000 have so far, agreeing to let the researchers continuously track things such as typing speed, number of keystrokes, and use of spellcheck. Participants include healthy people, and their data will help researchers zero in on changes in phone use that may signal onset of mood problems.
  • Mindstrong, a Palo Alto, Calif., tech health company co-founded by Insel, the former NIH official, is testing a "digital phenotyping" app in several studies.
  • Verily, a tech health arm of Google parent company Alphabet, is developing a similar app but declined to elaborate beyond a statement from its mental health leader, Menachem Fromer. He cited two key goals: making predictions about someone's mental health and their symptoms and "discovering new subtypes of disease that may inform treatment decisions."
(Click for more, including feedback from app users and info on what the apps will eventually do if a problem is detected.)

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