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Your Phone May Be Able to Tell When You’re Depressed

Your Phone May Be Able to Tell When You're DepressedYou are probably like me, in that, you have your smartphone with you at all times. It’s become a security blanket of sorts. You may not be using it, but it’s there just in case of emergency. Or boredom. Instagram doesn’t just check itself, you know. We check our phones constantly, whether for text, social media, email or, heaven forbid, an actual phone call. These are all normal and predictable behaviors. It also turns out that these behaviors may be able to detect whether or not you’re experiencing depression or mania.

On average, we spend five hours a day on our phones and check it 85 times per day. According to new research from Maria Faurholt-Jepsen and their team, if you have bipolar disorder, the amount of time and how you spend that time may vary depending on your mood.

Bipolar disorder is characterized by severe mood swings between depression, mania and euthymia (mostly asymptomatic). How long the episodes last varies from person to person and episode to episode.

During depressive episodes, people have problems with sleeping and eating. They often feel incredible fatigue and have a hard time concentrating. In its depths, they lose all interest in daily activities and often feel hopeless and worthless.

With mania, energy increases. Patients often feel like they need less sleep, sometimes just a few hours. Thoughts race, they’re easily distractible and simultaneously goal-oriented. They have bouts of grandiosity and engage in risky behavior because they feel like they can’t be touched. Sometimes it comes with euphoria, sometimes incredible irritation.

Considering these drastic changes in behavior, it’s not surprising that bipolar disorder changes how people interact with technology.

The researchers in this study wanted to see exactly how these interactions shift with bipolar disorder. They installed an app on subjects’ smartphones to track their smartphone activity. It recorded the number of incoming and outgoing texts, the length of phone calls, how long the screen was turned on and how many times the phone changed cell tower locations.

The results indicated that when participants were depressed, there were more missed calls and fewer outgoing text messages. This makes sense. When you’re depressed, you tend to avoid social interaction. Even if you actually do want to spend time with others, sometimes it’s just too hard to handle.

Despite the lack of outgoing communication, screen time actually increased for depressed patients. Movement between towers was lower, so activity level was presumably lower. Apparently spending less time on the move means more screen time.

This goes along with another study showing that people who are depressed spend more time on social media (though not necessarily posting). Tumblr will even redirect people who search for words like “depressed” to a page asking “Everything Okay?” with links for crisis intervention.

Faurholt-Jepsen’s study also found differences during manic phases. There were more outgoing text messages, more outgoing calls were made and movement between towers was higher than normal. People experiencing mania are often chatty, even when they don’t mean to be. Inhibition is low, so your brain seemingly moves slower than your mouth. Moving around a lot also goes along with the increased energy and sleeplessness associated with bipolar mania. It makes sense.

The goal with this study and others like it is not just to collect metadata on people with bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder patients are not always aware they’re experiencing a mood swing. Depression is easier to spot, but manic patients don’t always recognize differences in their behavior, even when it’s obvious to others.

The data collected in these studies are being used to develop apps that can help people recognize not only when they are having an episode, but they will likely be able to predict an oncoming episode.

When you’re given notice, it’s easier to prepare for what’s coming.



You can follow me on Twitter @LaRaeRLaBouff or find me on Facebook.

Image credit: Esther Vargas

Your Phone May Be Able to Tell When You’re Depressed

LaRae LaBouff

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APA Reference
LaBouff, L. (2016). Your Phone May Be Able to Tell When You’re Depressed. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 21, 2018, from


Last updated: 10 Apr 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 10 Apr 2016
Published on All rights reserved.