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Doctors Want To Use Smartphone Apps To Check Depression In Teens

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The increasing suicide rates and depression in American teens and young adults have prompted researchers to turn to smartphone apps to detect trouble and predict possible self-harm.

While some experts point their fingers to the use of smartphhones as a leading cause to young people's depression and rising suicide rates, the same devices may also be used to find solutions to the mental health crises among teens.

Mental Health Crises In Teens

Studies have linked teen's mental health with the heavy use of smartphones. However, as they scroll through social media apps, tap out texts, or watch YouTube videos, they also leave digital fingerprints that might give clues about their mental health.

Preliminary studies suggest that the changes in typing speed, the voice tones, their choices of words and how often kids stay home from school could indicate trouble.

Smartphone 'Biomarkers' For Depression

Researchers believe that that many indicators could send an early signal of mental trouble. There are at least 1,000 smartphone biomarkers for depression, said Dr. Thomas Insel, former head of the National Institute of Mental Health. Insel also now leads the smartphone psychiatry movement.

Researchers are testing apps that use artificial intelligence to possibly predict episodes of depression or potential self-harm.

"We are tracking the equivalent of a heartbeat for the human brain," said Dr. Alex Leow, associate professor of psychiatry and bioengineering at the University of Illinois in Chicago who is also an app developer.

Development Of Mood-Detecting Apps

However, there are technical hurdles and ethical issues to deal with, such as user privacy and permission issues. University of Oregon psychologist Nick Allen thinks that smartphone users usually feel that using these kinds of apps are creepy. That is because tech companies are tracking consumers' online habits for commercial purposes.

Using smartphones to detect mental issues would require informed consent from users to install the mood-detecting app, and they could uninstall the app anytime.

"The biggest hurdle at the moment is to learn about what's the signal and what's the noise - what is in this enormous amount of data that people accumulate on their phones that is indicative of a mental health crisis," said Allen.

Developers say that because of these hurdles, it will take more years, but not decades, to have commercially available mood-detecting apps in the market.

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