#114 5 Ways Your Smartphone Can Tell If You’re Depressed

5 Ways Your Smartphone Can Tell If You’re Depressed

One in 14 Americans will suffer from depression this year.  Your friends are worried you might be the one.  Can your smartphone diagnose you with depression?

In this article, I share 5 scientifically proven ways your smartphone can tell if you’re depressed.  I also share specific things you can do now to minimize your risk of every suffering from this devastating condition.

Depression Causes Heart AttacksHeart Attack

While most people are aware of the link between depression and suicide, few people are aware that depression causes heart attacks.  For example, in a recently published study of 34,726 American adults from Columbia University Medical School in New York City, the combination of stress plus depression increased the risk of premature death or a heart attack by 48%.

How Can Your Smartphone Tell If You Are Depressed?

You may be wondering how exactly your smartphone can tell if you are depressed.  Rather than creating yet another app that asks you questions to see if you are depressed based on your answers, researchers at Northwestern School of Medicine in Chicago sought to answer this question with more objective data generated by smartphone sensors and GPS data.

In this study, researchers enrolled 40 adults.  With an app to collect smartphone data, Northwestern University researchers were able to diagnose depression with 87% accuracy.

This objective smartphone diagnosis of depression, based on sensors and GPS tracking data, was then compared to the traditional way of diagnosing depression.  Based on the results of this study, here are the 5 ways your smartphone can tell if you’re depressed.

5 Ways Your Smartphone Can Tell If You’re Depressed

1. Your Circadian Rhythm Is Off

Your circadian rhythm is your body’s internal 24 hour clock which is set based on the sun.  Even plants and animals have this same 24 hour internal clock.

In people without a stable circadian rhythm, the risk of cancer and heart attacks are both significantly increased.  Our bodies need to be in rhythm with the sun for optimal health.

In depression, people tend to live lives out of sync with the natural circadian rhythm.  In other words, as people are entering into a bout of depression they may go to sleep much earlier or later than previously or they may have days when they go into work late.

In my case, my iPhone knows I like to go to bed at 10 pm and arise at 5 am.  I leave for the hospital somewhere between 6:30 and 7:30 am and that we keep our bedroom very dark at night and I try to keep my daytime light exposure as high as possible.  My iPhone could also tell you that I get on my treadmill desk or bike desk first thing in the morning and, whenever possible, I try to carve out time to exercise hard outside later in the day.

Through motion detectors, your smartphone can tell if your circadian rhythm is off.  To keep yourself as mentally healthy as possible, try to go to bed and arise each morning at the same time, keep it dark at night and light during the day, and have a set time to eat, work, and exercise.

2. You Stop Going to Your Favorite Places

Through GPS technology, your smartphone can quickly learn where your favorite places are.  For me, my smartphone could learn very quickly that I tend to be happiest when I regularly visit the ski resorts near my home to either ski in the winter or mountain bike in the summer.

People suffering from depression tend to lose interest in their favorite activities.  They tend to stop going to their favorite places.

Where are your favorite places?  Do you have a favorite movie theater, restaurant, or workout location?  Make sure you never withdraw from your favorite places or activities.

3. You Suddenly Start Spending More Time at Home

Your smartphone can also tell if you suddenly start spending more time at home.  People suffering from depression tend to stop going out and isolate themselves at home.

Sure, there could be a change in your life like an injury or a new baby.  However, significant events like these, can also be a risk factor for depression.

In my situation, my smartphone knows that if I am at home I am rarely sitting.  I am either on my treadmill desk or engaged in some sort of activity with my family.

Once again, to stay mentally healthy, don’t suddenly start spending all of your time locked within the walls of your home.  Make sure you are connecting with other people and with nature whenever possible.

4. You Spend More Time on Your Phone

Studies have shown that depressed people tend to spend more time on social media or their smartphones.  Not surprisingly, your smartphone can track how much time you are on it each day.

For example, in this study, depressed people spent an average of 68 minutes playing on their phones while non-depressed people spent a mere 17 minutes on their phones.  Could it be that the smartphone is a distraction from the world for depressed people?

To be honest, I am guilty of spending too much time on my smartphone.  I’m not sure if I am at the 68 minute mark or not but I am certainly spending more than 17 minutes on my iPhone each day.  I have made it a personal goal to only check social media and emails once or twice, at most, each day.

Many of my patients have shared with me that the simple act of unplugging from technology on Sundays helps them to avoid feeling depressed and keep their hearts beating right.  If you are spending too much time on your smartphone you are missing out on your life.

5. You Frequently Reach for Your Phone

As with number 4 above, depressed people in this study were much more likely to reach for their smartphones.  Perhaps these people were worried they might miss the latest Facebook post, that critical text message, or an important work email.

I am guilty of this as well.  Once again, for your health, don’t reach for your phone unless it is absolutely critical.

Can I Get the App?

I would love to have an app, like the one used in this study, running on my iPhone in the background. Then, if my behaviors suddenly start to change, it could ask me if I was OK and whether or not I needed help.

Even though all of the data used in this study is already available from your smartphone, an app like this to gather and analyze these data does not currently exist in the iTunes store.  The only apps currently available rely on self-reported data from quizes or questionnaires to assist in determining if you are depressed or not based on your answers.

An app that actually tracks your behaviors could be very helpful as it provides objective observational data that could prompt you to make an appointment with your healthcare provider to prevent a major bout of depression.  Perhaps if you know a software developer you could encourage them to create such an app.

Final Thoughts

Depression is a serious condition.  Depression can ruin your health, your family, and your life.  If you suffer from any of the symptoms discussed in this article, let your physician know so that you can receive the help you need.

Remember, this was a small study.  The findings of this study cannot be used to diagnose true depression until they are validated in a large group of patients.  Regardless, I found the findings of this study very fascinating and it may open the door to new apps to identify people who need help.

Next Steps

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Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.

  1. i Don’t use smartphone I Use I-Pad on 9-20-14Had Trouble Breathing Went E.R. At Hospital Was Told by Doctor I Have Lung Cancer.going ToTry Make Long Story Short,I Was 3Pack Per Day Smoker Also Clean And Sober For 5Yrs.8Months Had Surgery On11-13-14 Non Small Cell From Under My Arm Removed.Appox.1/5 Of Right Upper Lung Still Have Nerve Pain,7days I.C.U. After Surgery Walked Out Of Hospital No Chemotherapy Or Radiation Treatments.have Not Smoked Since I Was Told About The Cancer.First 6Month C-T Scan Clean.I Use The I-Pad To Occupy My Hands.I live in New Jersey,between The Lung Cancer,Our Last Winter And my C.O.P.D. I’Am 58+Years Old I just Decided To Just Take A Year Break From The Rat Race To The Grave.Nobody Is Going To Get Out Alive And Tomorrow Is Not Promised.I Can’t Believe It’s 8Months Already,I Want To Finish My Journey Walking Towards My End ,not Aimlessly Wondering By Reading Your Letter Dr. John Day ,I Probably Touched Upon Depression.but I Gotta Say Every Morning When I Open My Eyes I Thank God For This Day.Thank You For Letting Me Vent On Your Website .i Read And Save All Your Information Dr. John Day.May Love And Peace Be Upon You And Yours….!

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for reaching out! It sounds like you have been through a lot. So glad to hear you are making very positive lifestyle changes. Keep working with your physician, stay positive, and keep living healthy!