Chicago, IL – We’re quite used to thinking about our smartphone as a tool to track wellness—a parking lot for apps that can keep tabs on exercise, caloric intake, heart rate, sleep, and plenty of other things. But smartphones may also be ambiently tracking our mental health. A study from Northwestern University published this summer suggests that smartphone usage may be an indicator of depression.

The small study (28 men and women aged 19 – 58) tracked smartphone usage over a 2 week period. It passively monitored the time spent on the phone and also the GPS coordinates of the phone (position was marked every 5 minutes). That data was then compared to the study group’s results on a standardized questionnaire called the PHQ-9, which is widely used in evaluating depression.

The results showed that the more time that participants spent on their smartphones, the more likely that they were depressed. The average daily usage for depressed individuals was around 68 minutes vs. about 17 minutes for non-depressed individuals. Also, and not particularly shocking, it was found that those who spent more time at home or had more erratic movement patterns (as tracked by the GPS location pings) were also more likely to be depressed. Unfortunately, the test had no way of knowing exactly what the participants were doing during the time spent on the phone, which is a significant knowledge gap. I’d imagine that six 10 min. conversations with friends does not say the same thing about a person’s mental state as a 60 min Candy Crush session.

While the study was small and had its gaps, it does bring up some interesting possibilities about better detecting and monitoring depression. Pinpointing depression can be tricky, and unlike other conditions that have clear physical symptoms and markers that a healthcare professional can observe, it is largely diagnosed and treated based on a person’s feedback and responses to probing.

The study points to a new technique that could help supplement largely subjective data (what people tell their HCP) with a more unbiased data set using a piece of technology that has practically become an extension of our being these days. As senior study author David Mohr puts it:

“We now have an objective measure of behavior related to depression. And we’re detecting it passively. Phones can provide data unobtrusively and with no effort on the part of the user.”

Beyond detection and monitoring, the findings also offer up some new ideas for treatment and intervention. A usage “warning” could be sent ahead to a physician or even caregivers if a patient was exhibiting behavior patterns related to a depressive swing. The phone itself could also be used as a delivery method for cognitive therapy—think apps that can sense mental states and patterns, and then either positively reinforce good behaviors or provide encouragement to course-correct bad.

This is the next area of clinical research that the Northwestern team is moving into, in the hopes that they will be able to effectively treat depression and anxiety by using data-driven interventions to change behavior. Hopefully their work will offer innovative new “beyond the pill” solutions for a problem that is only continuing to grow.

About the Author:

Jeffrey Giermek