How You Use Your iPhone Can Be an Indicator of Your Mental Health, Researchers Find

Woman Using Iphone 6 What Your Iphone Says About Your Personality Credit: Farknot Architect / Shutterstock
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There have been a number of rumours and others ideas lately about how the iPhone and Apple Watch could help contribute to mental health by analysing physiological and psychological factors that are often believed to contribute to things like depression, stress, anxiety, and more.

In fact, a recent leak suggested that the upcoming Apple Watch Series 6 could include a new algorithm that would use heart rate data to track stress levels and possibly even detect potential panic attacks. While we didn’t hear anything about this when Apple unveiled watchOS 7 last month, it could be dependent on newer or more accurate sensor hardware in the Apple Watch Series 6, such as the much-rumoured blood oxygen monitoring capabilities, in which case Apple wouldn’t be talking about it before the new Apple Watch model arrives this fall.

Apple also continues to pour quite a bit of money into its ResearchKit frameworks to help medical professionals find new ways to use the Apple Watch and iPhone for detecting a wide variety of different conditions. For example, two years ago it introduced the ability to detect symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, and last year Apple partnered with other health tech companies to find out if the Apple Watch and iPhone could detect early signs of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s.

Behavioural Patterns

While physiological conditions can definitely be indicators of things like stress and anxiety — things that Apple is likely to make use of if it adds the rumoured features to the new Apple Watch this year — a proper analysis of mental health requires a multi-faceted approach.

For example, in the aforementioned dementia study, researchers have also been looking at behavioural changes such as typing speeds and frequency of communications, and now another study by a group of Canadian researchers is looking for ways to expand this into a more generalize assessment of mental health.

Researchers at Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University have developed a new app, PROSIT (via CBC), that will look at how you use your iPhone in an attempt to paint a picture of not only things like anxiety and stress levels, but also depression.

The app exists solely as part of the research study right now — it’s not intended as an actual diagnostic tool, but rather a means to feed data to the scientists so they can analyze it and try to identify the telltale signs of various mental states.

For example, the app will not only track the obvious health factors like exercise and sleep, but also how frequently you make phone calls or send messages, and even the type of music you’re listening to. Other more subtle data will also be included, such as typing speed and force, which researchers believe can say a lot about a person’s mental state.

When people are emotional, when you’re angry, you want to send an emotional text. Not only the speed of your typing changes, but also the force you apply on the keyboard to type also changes.

Rita Orji, computer scientist at Dalhousie University

Participants will also be asked to record a 90-second audio clip to describe the most exciting thing that happened to them over the past couple of weeks, and also self-report their feelings on a five-point scale.

At this point there are about 300 people enrolled in the study, half of whom are mental health patients. The study is primarily focused on determining how well young people are coping with social isolation as a result of the ongoing global pandemic. While there are obvious privacy concerns, like any research study the team at Dalhousie had to comply with the University’s ethics guidelines before they were allowed to proceed. Every participant had to physically sign a consent form, and all of the data is encrypted and stored in a secure location.

The team also notes that they’re tracking behavioural patterns, and not actual content. For example, they don’t monitor what’s in the messages that users are sending, they’re simply measuring how many messages are being sent. Similarly, they’re not tracking what a user is typing, but merely how fast and how hard the typing is occurring.

What This Means for You

With all of Apple’s work in health, this seems like the sort of thing that the Apple Watch maker could somebody pick up on as well, combining health data and sophisticated algorithms to help detect and potentially improve users’ mental health, even if it doesn’t become about diagnostics.

For example, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see Siri somebody offering to brighten the lights or play some uplifting music if your Apple Watch or iPhone detects that you seem to be feeling down, or conversely offer up a more calming playlist during times of stress and anxiety.

This kind of intelligent assistant is likely still years away, however, and even the researchers at Dalhousie are currently aiming at a more specialized medical application rather than something with broader ambitions. As Dr. Sandra Meier, one of the psychologists leading the study notes an app like PROSIT can be a valuable tool for psychologists and psychiatrists to keep tabs on their patients when they can’t see them face to face, and possibly even to gain deeper insights into their patients’ mental health that might be beyond the ability of the patients to describe themselves.

When we see our patients, they’re with us for a very short time, and you would love to know how the patients are actually doing outside of the clinical setting so when they are at home, and we would like to do that in a way that is not so invasive for them.

Dr. Sandra Meier, psychologist at Dalhousie University

That said, Meier also adds that the app should only be seen as a general barometer right now, and definitely can’t do things like predicting a mental health crisis. Much more data and research is required before they get to that point, but ultimately Meier adds that the goal of the app is to complement a mental health care provider, not serve as a replacement for them.

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