Study examines how smartphones can measure depression in users

Excessive smartphone use, measured by sensor data and geopresence technologies, may be the next big indicator of depression, according to a Northwestern University study published at the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

The paper shows how time spent on a phone may reflect a user's depressive state; the average daily phone use for depressed individuals is about 68 minutes versus 17 minutes for non-depressed individuals.

Researchers were able identify people with depressive symptoms with 87 percent accuracy.

"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," senior author David Mohr, director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies at Northwestern, says according to an announcement on the study. "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."

The ability to better diagnose depression and potentially depressive individuals could lead to next-gen behavioral intervention tools and providing support to those suffering or at risk for depression, the researchers say.

"While these findings must be replicated in a larger study among participants with confirmed clinical symptoms, they suggest phone sensors offer numerous clinical opportunities, including continuous monitoring of at-risk populations with little patient burden and interventions that can provide just-in-time outreach," they add.

Smartphones can also help detect and treat mental illness in non-passive ways. Apps that monitor human behavior, speech and voice levels, moods and social interaction are being researched as potential tools for helping those suffering from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, among other mental illnesses. 

In addition, the Syracuse VA Medical Center is launching a study to investigate if a mobile app can help veterans better self-manage post-traumatic stress disorder. The team hopes the study will lead to improved management of PTSD symptoms, which include depression and general mental and physical stress.

The Northwestern research team says the next step in studying smartphone use for depression diagnosis will be delving deeper in the role a phone is playing in the lives of a depressed individual and highlighting potential areas for treatment.

For more information:
- check out the study 
- read the announcement

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