Rising suicide rates and depression in U.S. 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. 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.
“People often feel that these things are creepy,” because of the tech industry’s surreptitious tracking of online habits for commercial purposes, said University of Oregon psychologist Nick Allen.
Using smartphones as mental illness detectors would require informed consent from users to install an app, “and they could withdraw permission at any time,” said Allen, one of the creators of an app that is being tested on young people who have attempted suicide.
“The biggest hurdle at the moment,” Allen said, “is to learn about what’s the signal and what’s the noise — what is in this enormous amount of data that people accumulate on their phones that is indicative of a mental health crisis.”