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This article was published on September 21, 2021

No Apple, I don’t need my iPhone to tell me I’m depressed

No, thanks

No Apple, I don’t need my iPhone to tell me I’m depressed
Ivan Mehta
Story by

Ivan Mehta

Ivan covers Big Tech, India, policy, AI, security, platforms, and apps for TNW. That's one heck of a mixed bag. He likes to say "Bleh." Ivan covers Big Tech, India, policy, AI, security, platforms, and apps for TNW. That's one heck of a mixed bag. He likes to say "Bleh."

Tech companies like Apple and Google want to measure your health in multiple ways possible. But they’re running out of physical attributes to gauge such as heart rate, steps taken in a day, and blood oxygen. So the focus might shift to mental health, and that’s a slippery slope.

According to documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, Apple is working on a set of features to detect depression and cognitive decline using sensors on your iPhone. The company hopes to develop algorithms to detect mental anomalies using signals like sleep patterns, physical activity, and typing behavior.

Apple has launched multiple studies in order to study the relation between digital behavior and mental health issues. The firm has tied up with the University of California to study stress, anxiety, and depression; another study is pharma company Biogen is observing mild cognitive impairment. 

Last year, the company also launched a three-year study with UCLA to study depression using data collected from iPhone and Apple Watch of participants. It started with 150 people, and aims to cover 3,000 people by the end of it.

WSJ’s report notes that these studies and developments are at early stages and may never ship with iPhones. It also noted that while mental health is a subject highly reliant on experts, Apple hopes to develop tools to help people who might not have access to them.

Researchers have studied the relation between smartphones and mental health in the past. However, Apple’s project is massive in terms of complexity and reach. In order to effectively roll it out to cover billions of people, it’ll have to also study cultural differences.

The algorithm might rely heavily on all sensors from iPhone (and maybe Apple Watch) to collect accurate data to detect mental health issues. That’s a lot of money and reliance on relatively expensive technology for a feature that wants to bring mental health awareness to the masses

There’s no doubt that there are smart people involved in this project, but mental health is a complex subject. I’ve used stress monitoring features in some of the modern wearables and found them to be utterly useless.

It’s also important to keep in mind that your phone telling you that you’re depressed can actually trigger or increase anxiety levels. Unless these algorithms are proven to be accurate beyond doubt, I’d prefer to rely on my therapist for mental health support. Thanks, Apple.

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