Depression and other forms of mental illness are a serious concern, affecting millions of people around the world. The lack of interest in life’s daily activities and the range of negative emotions can prove fatal to a percentage of those affected. Early detection and treatment of depression is key to restoring the quality of life to those affected, allowing them to get back on track.A new study by the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Michigan State University claims to have found a link between the length of time spent on a smartphone and the likelihood of depression. Published by the Journal of Medical Internet Research, the study claims to be able to detect depression with 87 per cent accuracy. Depressed people in the study used their phones for an average of 68 minutes per day, while non-depressed individuals only spend about 17 minutes per day on their phones.

How the Study Worked

Participants were asked to download the mobile phone app Purple Robot to their phones, which was developed by the researchers to monitor mobile phone sensor data. They were also asked to rate their feelings by answering nine questions on a scale of zero to three. The app then collected information on the participants’ daily phone use, along with information about their daily activities, such as if they left the house frequently.Mobile
Forty adults, ranging from ages 19 to 58, participated in the study, which lasted for two weeks. At the beginning, the participants took the patient health questionnaire, which can only screen for depression, not actually diagnose it. They were then divided into two groups, consisting of those who scored five or less, and those who scored higher than five on the self-assessment.

The Tentative Results

Once the study was completed, data was made available for only 28 of the 40 participants, 14 out of each group. In the depressed group, the overall score was 9.6, which would only possibly indicate mild depressive symptoms. The study did not indicate how their smartphones were being used, whether it was for phoning people or browsing on the Internet. They also could not tell why people were staying at home more frequently than expected, as the result could have come from sudden illness, unemployment, or other factors unrelated to depression.

The researchers, led by Professor David Mohr, proclaimed that these preliminary results could assist with monitoring those at-risk for depression, facilitating outreach in times of crisis. They said that these findings were more accurate than the self-assessment the participants took, which could make you aware of depression far earlier in the process. The proposed reason for heightened mobile phone use is because people will use their phones to distract them from thinking about unpleasant activities, events, or emotions. This avoidance behaviour is common in depression, and turning to the Internet is one possible way to ignore what is troubling you.

Further Research is Necessary

While the possibility of diagnosing depression via mobile phone use is an attractive one, it is not a fool-proof solution. The study itself was very small, with only 40 total participants. The participants assessed themselves via the questionnaire, without any professional diagnosis. The two groups were not compared to see if they had similar demographics, histories of mental illness or other medical issues, levels of employment, or any other confounding factors that could skew the results.

At best, the study indicates the possibility of correlation between mobile use and depressive symptoms, and cannot currently point anyone towards an official diagnosis. However, if larger and stricter studies are conducted, the possibility of using mobile data to detect depression could one day become a reality. The ability to monitor a person’s activities and being notified if they are not participating in society as they used to do could one day help people deal with depressive symptoms. At present, more research is required before making this technological advance a reality.