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8th January 2015

Depressed? Your smartphone knows

Smartphones have for long been so much more than smartphones. They can give us an eye exam, tell if we have an ear infection, help in managing diabetes. Diagnostics is one of the area leading the way, using phones as a cheap, portable, and available alternative to bulky lab equipment.

But diagnosing illnesses of the psyche are a much more sensitive job. You can’t hold a phone to your ear or mouth and send it off to a physician in full-HD asking them to find out if you have anxiety issues.

What you can do, is use an app to flag mental health issues before they get more serious.

Researchers now claim that an iPhone is able to diagnose depression by tracking the way we use our phone. An available app, Ginger.io monitors who you call, when, for how long; how often you text your friends or call your mother. In addition it tracks your sleeping patterns and how far you travel on given days. You could tell your mom you were at school, but you can’t trick your phone if you spent the day under the duvet. It looks for signs that something has changed from the ordinary.

Developers ran weekly surveys with 200 women suffering from postpartum depression to find patterns of behaviour that can be tracked with a phone.

“Changes in medication or mood are tied to communication and movement patterns,” Karan Singh, one of Ginger.io’s founders told Technology Review. “Call diversity is a great example. When people fall into a cycle of depression, they tend to go into isolation and only call a couple of people.”

This isn’t the first time researchers worked on using the smartphone to flag mental issues. A study from the University of Michigan focused on speech patterns to find out if they’re at risk of depression. Acousticians found that a breathier and slower speech could serve as a hint of depression. Such voice analysis can be done with any smartphone; a very similar app is already available that focuses on finding early signs of Parkinson’s.

It may sound a bit creepy at first that a phone can tell my mood. But it’s also one of the most personal items of today and we usually spend more time with our phones than with other people. It’s the perfect 24/7 monitoring and if we already use it to check how we sleep, how many steps we take or what’s our temperature, why couldn’t it help elevate our mood too?

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Header Photo credit: Mike Kniec/ Flickr