Can Your Phone Tell When You’re Depressed?

Is Your Phone the Best Depression Test?

Photo: Pond5

Man’s best friend is more likely to be his smartphone than his dog these days. That’s why it makes sense that your technology might be the first to know if you’re starting to get depressed.

A new study from Northwestern Medicine revealed that people with symptoms of depression use their phones nearly four times as much as those who aren’t depressed. To break it down: Depressed people spent about 68 minutes each day tapping away, compared to just 17 minutes for those without depression.

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“When people use their phones more to look at Facebook or the Internet, it distracts them from what they’re feeling in the moment,” says study author Stephen Schueller, PhD, assistant professor at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

“For a lot of people with depression, we see a pattern of them just going from work to home.”

The small two-week study of 28 participants used a tracker to monitor how much time people spent on their phones, and how often they moved around, based on the GPS. Each participant also took a standardized questionnaire used to diagnose depression in clinical settings. By the end of the study, it turned out that a person’s phone data could also act as a depression test, with 87 percent accuracy compared to the traditional clinical questionnaire.

But before you resolve to quit Instagram for good, it turns out that a person’s GPS action is an even stronger predictor of the blues than time spent staring at the screen. “Where they were going, how often they were getting out of house, how many different places they were visiting — that pattern of daily living was more strongly predictive than time spent on the phone,” Schueller says.

Simply put, mentally healthy people are more likely to be on the move. “For a lot of people with depression, we see a pattern of them just going from work to home,” Schueller says. “But people without depression do a lot of different things — they go grocery shopping, they go out and get active, they’re engaging in social activities. And they’re doing it on a more regular basis.”

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In the future, researchers hope this technology can be used to alert users, or medical providers, that they may be falling into unhealthy patterns. It could also help docs determine whether treatments for depression are actually working. And before you get worried that big brother is watching, the researchers say they have precautions in place to guard your privacy — and make sure the GPS data doesn’t reveal your exact location.

In the meantime, resist the urge to hide behind your device when you’re feeling down — and reach out to a friend IRL, instead. “If you really struggle with using your phone all the time, make sure it’s not always in your pocket or right next to you,” Schueller says. “Even taking a couple of steps before picking up your phone is going to make you less likely to use it.”

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