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Your Phone Can Tell When You're Depressed

Simply by scanning your Instagram feed.


It's 2017 and, by God, Big Brother really is watching us. What would you say for example, if your phone could detect when you're depressed more accurately than an actual physician, simply by scanning the contents of your Instagram feed? Clever, but scary.

Researchers from the Harvard psychology department and the University of Vermont Computational Story Lab just released the results of a fascinating study. They developed an algorithm which scanned the contents of nearly 44,000 photos from 166 participants, predicting clinical depression diagnoses by parsing facial detection data, platform activity metrics, metadata, and color analysis. The number of selfies, the number of other people in photos and the use of specific filters such as 'Inkwell' were dead giveaways.

This technique – drawing diagnostic data from our interactions with devices like smartphones – is called digital phenotyping, and whether or not you are aware of it, it's happening to you on a minute-by-minute basis. How often do you leave the house? Ask your GPS. How frequently do you interact with friends? Your message logs spell it out loud and clear. And that's not even a fraction of the treasure chest of data we are unwittingly making available.

The science is still relatively new but apps are already cashing in. Ginger.io uses “passive tracking” to provide users with tailored mental health support, and start-up Mindstrong, according to WIRED, is attempting to “correlate keyboard use patterns with outcomes like depression, psychosis, or mania.”

Although potentially very useful, the technology raises some important ethical questions. Would you like to be informed that you might have a potential illness if you were oblivious to the symptoms before? Would you rather receive a life-changing notification from your doctor in person or via a push notification? And that's not to mention the implications of such accurate mental health data – essentially the epitome of your private personal life – being readily available to big businesses.

What are your thoughts?