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Smartphone app can help detect depression in user, study suggests
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While you may be able to keep a smile on your face in front of family, friends and peers, you may not be able to hide depression from your smartphone. - photo by Jessica Ivins
CHICAGO While you may be able to keep a smile on your face in front of family, friends and peers, you may not be able to hide depression from your smartphone.

Thats the idea behind a new study out of Northwestern University, which tested an app that tracks behaviors such as time spent on the phone, time spent away from home and how well the user sticks to a daily routine. These behaviors can speak volumes about a persons mental health, researchers said.

You could think of it as a therapist in your pocket, study author Sohrab Saeb told Today.

For the study, Saeb and his team recruited 40 adult participants through a Craigslist posting. The Purple Robot a sensor data acquisition app was installed on participants phones, and data was tracked for two weeks using tools such as GPS, according to the study.

Additionally, participants took a survey at the beginning of the two weeks with questions designed to identify depressive symptoms.

Of the 40 participants, only 28 produced usable data thanks to issues with transmission. Of those 28, 14 showed signs of mild to severe depression, while the other 14 revealed no symptoms, according to researchers.

Researchers found that the more time people spent using their phones, the more likely they were to show symptoms of depression. The 14 participants who showed signs of depression spent an average of 68 minutes a day using their phones, while those who werent depressed spent just 17 minutes on the phone.

Phone usage did not include actual calls, researchers noted.

Ultimately, the Purple Robot was about 87 percent accurate in detecting depression, according to researchers.

While the results of the study published this week in the Journal of Medical Internet Research are promising, Saeb said the technology isnt quite ready to be released to the public and that more research is needed to get to that step.

However, Saeb and his colleagues said the tool could be extremely helpful to doctors and even users in tracking and treating depression.

I think the most important aspect of it would be that we could use it to passively and objectively monitor people without the need to ask any questions, he said.