App tracks mental health by studying your phone usage

It could be very helpful, but there are privacy concerns.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

The smartphone in your hand might be the key to gauging your mental health. Researchers at Dalhousie University have developed (via CBC and Gizmodo) a mobile app, PROSIT, that can detect conditions like anxiety or depression based on how you use your phone. This includes easily-tracked features like exercise, sleep, call frequency, message histories and music tastes, but also includes subtle data. Your typing speed and force can hint at an emotionally charged state, for instance.

Users are also asked to record a 90-second audio clip describing the most exciting part of their week, and to self-report their feelings on a five-point scale.

About 300 people are currently testing PROSIT, roughly half of which are patients.

Before you ask: the scientists are well aware of the privacy concerns involved in tracking many of the things you do online. Use of the app requires signing a consent form, and the data is stored in a secure location. You’re unlikely to see unrestricted use as a result, if just because the potential for stealing profile data is very real.

Still, apps like this could be useful for addressing mental health. While PROSIT doesn’t provide a complete picture of a person’s mental wellbeing, it could help psychologists track and better understand their patients’ development outside of sessions — important during a pandemic, when patients might only have periodic telehealth calls. This could lead to more targeted and effective treatments, at least for those patients who agree to be tracked in the first place.