Your Phone Can Tell When You're Feeling Sad

New research says smartphones can flag depressive symptoms.

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Photo by David Clark/Getty Images

All we ever hear is bad news about smartphones—they limit emotional intelligence, make us lazy, and hurt our hearing—but this week, some good news: smartphone sensors might actually help when it comes to addressing mental health. New research from Northwestern Medicine shows that a phone could be incredibly accurate at identifying depressive symptoms in adults.



Researchers studied 28 adult smartphone users over a two-week period, and found that depressed people spent an average of 68 minutes on their phones, compared to 17 minutes for non-depressed participants. In addition to time, location was a key indicator of depression. Researchers analyzed GPS data (the phones tracked location every five minutes) and found that people who didn't move far from home or who traveled to few locations were more likely to have or be at-risk for depression. Additionally, an irregular daily schedule—often marked by going to work late—was also linked to depression. The study will be published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, and scientists hope the findings will help monitor those at-risk for depression and cue health professionals to step in when needed.

"We now have an objective measure of behavior related to depression," senior study author David Mohr said in a statement. "And we're detecting it passively. Phones can provide data unobtrusively and with no effort on the part of the user." In fact, scientists correctly identified depressive symptoms 87 percent of the time. The smartphone data was even more reliable than a daily questionnaire that asked participants to rate their sadness on a scale of 1 to 10. This makes sense, considering we spend a lot of time with our cell phones—a new Gallup poll revealed people check their phone multiple times an hour, and 63 percent keep it nearby even when sleeping.

The major factors—time spent with the phone and GPS location data—correlated to common depressive symptoms, including avoidance, loss of motivation, and withdrawal. Mohr guesses that most people on their phones were surfing the Internet or playing games rather than connecting with those around them. Previous research from Baylor University supports these findings—cell phone addiction has been associated with emotional instability and introversion, according to that study.

Next, researchers hope to use these results to help those at-risk for 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," study author Sohrob Saeb said in the statement.