Psychiatrists and parents have long been worried about the psychological and emotional risks of high rates of social media use among teens, with so much time spent on their phones limiting face-to-face interaction, the development of social skills, and potentially contributing to depression and anxiety. But now, researchers are trying to find ways to use the fact that teens are on their phones so much to track possible signs of depression and intervene.
“The goal of our work aims to turn smartphones into ‘fitness trackers’ for the human brain,” Dr. Alex Leow, an app developer and associate professor in psychiatry, bioengineering and computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, tells Rolling Stone. The app she’s working on, BiAffect, uses iPhone metadata, such as “proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, camera, accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, barometer, Touch ID and pressure-sensitive display,” to track users’ mood and mental health, and is one of several similar projects in development.
Several recent studies show a correlation between social media and smartphone use and depression, anxiety, and loneliness: One showed that the more people used Facebook in a given time period, the more likely they were to be unhappy. Another recent study showed that in addition to total time spent on one social media site, people who used multiple networking sites or apps were more likely to be depressed. And yet another showed that among young adults, those who used social media for more than two hours per day were more likely to deal with feelings of social isolation than those who used it less.
And teens and young adults are, notoriously, the heaviest social media and smartphone users — 88 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 reported that they use social media, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, and 92 percent of teens and young adults owned a smartphone as of 2015. The same demographic has seen a spike in depression and anxiety in recent years. A 2017 study of over half a million 8 to 12th graders found that depressive symptoms among that group increased by 33 percent between the years of 2010 and 2015, and matched that increase to the spread of smartphone adoption, year by year. Suicide rates in teens have skyrocketed in the last several years, increasing by over 70 percent between 2006 and 2016, and several experts point to social media as a contributing factor.
Experts in adolescent mental health generally advise parents to limit their kids’ social media use, monitor their online activity, and model good habits by limiting their own screen time. But as smartphones become more and more ubiquitous, these tactics can feel increasingly futile and insufficient. So, some researchers decided, if teens are going to be on their phones all day anyway, maybe that’s the place to intervene and spot signs of depression before they escalate to dangerous levels.
“BiAffect analyzes data streams generated by a user’s interaction with their smartphone to create insights about their mood and cognition,” Dr. Leow says. “From these data, patterns associated with particular moods or cognitive states are identified which can be used to inform the care of people with mental health disorders and promote improved outcomes.”
BiAffect and other apps like it are currently in the research stage, and experts estimate we’re likely still a few years away from mood-sensing apps being widely available and effective. In addition to perfecting the science, there are also ethical questions involved in tracking such intimate information, and the general public is already wary of data-collecting apps since they often exist to sell personal data to corporations for profit.
“Critically ensur[ing] data security and participant privacy is the biggest challenge thus far,” Dr. Leow says.