Sunday 23 October 2016

Spend an hour on your smartphone daily? You could be depressed

Monitoring the length of time that volunteers spent on their phones and their movements showed whether they were depressed or not

Sarah Knapton

Published 16/07/2015 | 12:56

The average daily usage for depressed individuals was about 68 minutes, while for non-depressed individuals it was about 17 minutes.
The average daily usage for depressed individuals was about 68 minutes, while for non-depressed individuals it was about 17 minutes.

Spending more than an hour on your smartphone each day may be a sign that you are suffering from depression, a new study has suggested.

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A study by Northwestern University in the US suggests that monitoring phone data could be a simple way to assess whether someone is feeling upbeat or down in the dumps.

The more time spent using a phone for any reason including texting and going online, the more likely volunteers were to have the blues. The average daily usage for depressed individuals was about 68 minutes, while for non-depressed individuals it was about 17 minutes.

And monitoring people’s comings and goings using GPS tracking on their phones also helped track mood. Spending most of your time at home or at a small number of locations was also linked to depression, as was having an unregular daily schedule, such as unusual shift patterns.

More than one in 10 people in Britain suffer from anxiety and depression and the findings could provide an easy way at picking up problems quickly.

"When people are depressed, they tend to withdraw and don't have the motivation or energy to go out and do things,” said senior author David Mohr, director of the Centre for Behavioural Intervention Technologies at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“The data showing depressed people tended not to go many places reflects the loss of motivation seen in depression.

"The significance of this is we can detect if a person has depressive symptoms and the severity of those symptoms without asking them any questions. Phones can provide data unobtrusively and with no effort on the part of the user.”

While the phone usage data didn't identify how people were using their phones, Mohr suspects people who spent the most time on them were surfing the web or playing games, rather than talking to friends.

Around one in 10 people suffer from anxiety or depression.

"People are likely, when on their phones, to avoid thinking about things that are troubling, painful feelings or difficult relationships," Mohr he added: “It's an avoidance behavior we see in depression."

Based on the phone data, Northwestern scientists could identify people with depressive symptoms with 87 percent accuracy. They found it was more reliable than standard questions which asked participants how they were feeling on a scale of one to 10.

The research could ultimately lead to monitoring people at risk of depression using their smartphones so that health care providers could intervene.

The study involved tracking 20 women and eight men with an average age of 29 for two weeks.

To determine the relationship between phone usage and geographical location and depression, the subjects took a widely used standardized questionnaire measuring depression, the PHQ-9, at the beginning of the two-week study.

The PHQ-9 asks about symptoms used to diagnose depression such as sadness, loss of pleasure, hopelessness, disturbances in sleep and appetite, and difficulty concentrating.

Then, lead author Dr Sohrob Saeb developed algorithms using the GPS and phone usage data collected from the phone, and correlated the results of those GPS and phone usage algorithms with the subjects' depression test results.

Last year Microsoft Labs announced it was working on a programme which would pick up whether a new mother might suffer from post-natal depression based upon the language she used on social networking sites like Twitter.

Their algorithm does not depend on the mother talks about the pregnancy or her baby, but picks up subtle verbal cues which reveal her underlying unhappiness or anxiety.

General negativity in language, with a rise in the number of words like 'hate' 'miserable' 'disappointed', increased use of the word 'I' and a jump in the number of expletives are all clues that a new mum will suffer post-natal depression.

Researchers at Northwestern are planning to follow up their study to see whether getting people to change their behaviour could improve their mood and alleviate depression.

"We will see if we can reduce symptoms of depression by encouraging people to visit more locations throughout the day, have a more regular routine, spend more time in a variety of places or reduce mobile phone use," Saeb said.

The study will be published July 15 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

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