This morning I had my local news channel on when I heard them talking about a study that shows a relationship between the way someone uses the Internet and whether they are depressed. For a description of the study, you can go to this N.Y. Times article.
The findings suggest that people who obsessively check their e-mail, frequently switch between Internet applications (like video watching, games and chat rooms), and engage in high levels of file sharing (like movies and music) might be showing signs of depression. An earlier study already suggested that people who constantly check their e-mail may be experiencing high levels of anxiety, a possible symptom of depression.
Well, the question is; what do researchers plan to do with this type of information? The answer is a little weird, if you ask me. The idea is to develop software that will let users know if how they are spending their time online indicates a depressive mood. Many people are not aware when they become depressed, so this software will act as a tool to help them identify the signs. This just feels like self-help with a twist. But how might it be used?
The N.Y. Times article suggests that colleges could use it to track students’ online behavior and then notify counselors if there is a potential problem with depression. That’s a bit Orwellian, if you ask me. As the article states, it is unlikely that schools can do this for privacy reasons. For the sake of argument, let’s say that colleges figure out a way to track students’ online usage to determine the state of their mental health. What about businesses or the government finding ways to use it with employees? Maybe there is a benefit for people in high stress situations. But, overall, I don’t like the idea of being monitored via technology.
It seems that this type of technology is already in the works for Smartphones. Check out this Cnet blog post to read more. A psychologist, David Mohr, “has been adapting phones as a virtual therapist for patients prone to depression”. This technology sounds a bit intrusive, since it can “determine specific states, so [patient’s] location where they are, their activity, their social context, who they’re with, what they’re engaged in, and their mood”. If you seem depressed, your phone can text or call you with an automated message suggesting the person call someone or get out of the house. Dr. Mohr has tested it with eight patients, who seem to have been helped by their virtual therapy. See here (CBS Chicago). Do I feel any better about this in a medical context? According to Dr. Mohr, it could be a more cost-effective way to treat depression.
So what do you think? Do you want your mental state, your emotional state, your mood, to be monitored by your computer or your smartphone? If you possibly suffer from depression, would it be a useful tool? Or do you think that this type of technology has the potential for abuse – in a Big Brother sort of way?
© Robin Tjernagel
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