New Smartphone Apps May Be Able to Detect Depression Symptoms in Teens

How smartphone apps can be used to pick up on dangerous mental health conditions.
Smartphone apps might be able to be used to detect the mental health of the user.


Today’s technology can do some amazing things, and in some cases, one of those amazing things it can do can include saving a life. Case in point; over the last few years, several Apple Watch wearers have found themselves being alerted by their watch (without prompting) that something wasn’t right with their heartbeat rhythms.

The watches, which are capable of recording and noticing changes in regular rhythms, sent their users an alert when beats seemed off or abnormal, prompting those people to visit their doctor or emergency room, and in some cases, even foreshadowing heart failure.

What if we could do something similar by using a smartphone app to monitor specific patterns and usage habits of its user- say a teenager, with the ultimate goal of being able to detect when and if that teen is experiencing symptoms of sadness, anxiety, or even a serious depressive episode? Turns out, we’re actually not that far off from being able to do exactly that.

Rates of depression and suicide among adolescents continue to be on the rise, and psychologists and researchers are desperately trying to find some type of correlation between that alarming rise, and the coincidental massive increase and popularity of smartphone use.

You’d be hard pressed to find a teenager these days without a smartphone attached to their palm, or without knowledge and use of apps like Snapchat and Instagram, the latter being the highly flammable ignition that many teens are both judging themselves by, and harshly comparing their lives against. And while some teens are able to control and curb their smartphone use and avoid addiction, envy, and life disruption, many are often held hostage to their devices, and their mental well being is the first to suffer.

Is there a way to help those teens without taking their phones completely away from them?

In what is now being termed “smartphone psychiatry,” software developers, therapists, and researchers now believe they’ll eventually be able to use phone apps to monitor almost 1,000 specific “biomarkers” of smartphone use, ultimately allowing for the detection of abnormal emotional and mental behaviors.

Biomarkers include things like typing speed, use of spellcheck, search history, use and interaction of certain apps, and even physical movement (has phone been in same location for extended period of time?) Use of these phone apps combined with artificial intelligence may be able to predict self harm, depression, certain moods, or even the potential for a dangerous depressive episode of its user.

Dr. Alex Leow, an app developer and associate professor of psychiatry and bioengineering at the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus, believes that how a teen uses their smartphone could be the equivalent of a cardiologist being able to monitor a heart rate. He states, “We are tracking the equivalent of a heartbeat for the human brain.” 

Ultimately, the goal would be for these apps to be able to intervene during a potential episode by offering real time help in the form of text messages, instant online therapy via chat, and even digital alerts to family members or first responders.

Of course these kinds of apps bring with them a whole host of privacy and surveillance issues, and we’re too assume that for their use to be accurate and beneficial, teens would be required to consent to having all of their phone use monitored.  Stanford University is currently conducting research on an app that surveys at risk teens 2-3 times per week, inquiring about their moods, as well as assessing other data from their smartphone use. Participants agreed to being monitored, and one participant stated that although she felt she was being “spied on,” since nearly all the apps on her phone are collecting data on her, she said, “one more isn’t really a big difference.” 

And in a similar effort to combat rising depression rates on its campus, UCLA is also conducting similar research on 250 freshman who agreed to have their phones monitored, with one participant saying that if a phone could tell her it sensed depression, then maybe that would lead to more people seeking help or counseling earlier rather than later.

The volume of personal mental and physical data that smartphone apps have the ability to collect and bank on its user’s behalf is something that is only beginning to scratch the surface. But if those same apps can do for depressed and anxious teens what teachers, counselors, and parents have been unable to adequately do so far- that is, keep a caring and watchful eye on a youth that is seemingly growing more and more unstable, than why wouldn’t we take advantage of that type of healing technology?


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About Melissa Fenton

Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. Find her on Facebook 
and on twitter at @melissarunsaway

Read more posts by Melissa

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