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Smartphones Use Apps as Depression Detectives

FILE - Students walk across a campus in Portland, Oregon.
FILE - Students walk across a campus in Portland, Oregon.

Could the devices being blamed for teen depression be useful in revealing it?

Studies have linked heavy smartphone use with worsening teen mental health. But as teens spend time on sites like Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube, they also leave digital trails that may offer signs about their mental well-being.

FILE - An image of the Snapchat logo created with Post-it notes is seen in lower Manhattan, New York, May 18, 2016.
FILE - An image of the Snapchat logo created with Post-it notes is seen in lower Manhattan, New York, May 18, 2016.

Experts say possible warning signs include changes in writing speed, voice quality, word choice and how often a student stays home from school.

There are more than 1,000 smartphone "biomarkers," said Dr. Thomas Insel, former head of the National Institute of Mental Health, which is the largest mental health research organization in the world. Insel is a leader in the smartphone psychiatry movement.

Researchers are testing smartphone apps that use artificial intelligence, or AI, to predict depression and possible self-harm. Using smartphones as mental health detectors require permission from users to download an app, and permission could be revoked any time.

Nick Allen, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, has created an app being tested on young people who have attempted suicide. Allen says the biggest barrier is discerning the mental health crisis signals in the information on people's phones.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34 in the United States. By 2015, suicide rates among teen boys rose to 14 in every 100,000 and five in every 100,000 people, among girls. A recent study suggested a rise in smartphone use has probably worsened the crisis.

People with mental illness, Insel said, usually get treatment "when they're in crisis and very late. ... We want to have a method to identify the earliest signs."

FILE - iPhones on display at an Apple store in Virginia, USA, April 4, 2016. (Photo: Diaa Bekheet/VOA)
FILE - iPhones on display at an Apple store in Virginia, USA, April 4, 2016. (Photo: Diaa Bekheet/VOA)

If smartphones can become effective predictors, app developers say the goal might be to offer automated text messages and links to assistance, or digital messages to parents, doctors and first responders.

Facebook employs "proactive detection." Last year, after a suicide was broadcast on Facebook Live, the company trained its AI systems to look for words in online posts that could predict possible self-harm. Friends' comments expressing concern about the user's well-being are part of that detection system.

Facebook has helped first responders quickly reach around 3,500 people in the past year. But the company did not offer followup details on those people.

Ongoing research includes a Stanford University study of about 200 teens. Many of them are at risk for depression because of bullying, family issues or other problems. Teens who have been studied since grade school get an experimental phone app that asks them questions about their mood three times a day for two weeks.

Laurel Foster, 15, is part of the study. Foster said she is stressed about school and friendships. Depression is common at her San Francisco high school, she said. The smartphone app felt a little like being spied on, she said, but many websites are already following users' behaviors.

Alyssa Lizarraga, 19, is also part of the study. Lizarraga said she has had depression since high school, and worries about her heavy use of smartphones and social media. She said comparing herself with others online sometimes causes her sadness. But she believes using smartphones to identify mental health problems might help push people to seek early treatment.

FILE - In this Feb. 26, 2015, file photo, a UCLA campus tour guide leads prospective college-bound high school seniors on a campus tour in Los Angeles.
FILE - In this Feb. 26, 2015, file photo, a UCLA campus tour guide leads prospective college-bound high school seniors on a campus tour in Los Angeles.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, researchers offer online counseling and an experimental phone app to students who show signs of at least minor depression on a test. It is part of a larger effort launched in 2017 by the university to battle depression in its students. About 250 UCLA students agreed to use the app during their first year.

At the University of Illinois' Chicago campus, researchers are using crowdsourcing to test their experimental phone app. Nearly 2,000 people have downloaded the app and agreed to let researchers follow typing behaviors. Alex Leow, a professor of psychiatry and bioengineering at the university, helped develop the app.

The study is for people 18 and older, but Leow said it could also be used for children if successful.

Along with studies at universities, technology companies such as Mindstrong and Verily — the tech health division of Google — are testing their own experimental apps.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Senator draws attention to universities that haven’t returned remains

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, speaks with reporters as he walks to a vote on Capitol Hill, Sept. 6, 2023 in Washington.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, speaks with reporters as he walks to a vote on Capitol Hill, Sept. 6, 2023 in Washington.

More than 70 U.S. universities continue to hold human remains taken from Native American burial sites, although those remains were supposed to be returned 30 years ago.

Jennifer Bendery writes in Huffington Post that one senator has been using his position in an attempt to shame universities into returning remains and artifacts. (April 2024)

COVID forced one international student to go hungry

FILE - Masked students walk to the COVID-19 vaccination site at the Rose E. McCoy Auditorium on the Jackson State University campus in Jackson, Miss., July 27, 2021.
FILE - Masked students walk to the COVID-19 vaccination site at the Rose E. McCoy Auditorium on the Jackson State University campus in Jackson, Miss., July 27, 2021.

When Samantha (not her real name) enrolled in community college in the U.S., her family at home in South Africa scrimped and saved to support her.

But the COVID-19 pandemic hurt the family’s finances, and at one point Samantha had four on-campus jobs just to make ends meet. Many in the U.S. believe international students are wealthy sources of funding for universities, but stories like Samantha’s suggest otherwise.

Andrea Gutierrez reports for The World. (March 2024)

Tips for paying for a STEM degree as an international student

FILE - FILE - A visitor to the 21st China Beijing International High-tech Expo looks at a computer chip through the microscope displayed by the Tsinghua Unigroup project in Beijing, on May 17, 2018.
FILE - FILE - A visitor to the 21st China Beijing International High-tech Expo looks at a computer chip through the microscope displayed by the Tsinghua Unigroup project in Beijing, on May 17, 2018.

For US News & World Report, Melanie Lockert describes how to calculate the cost of a STEM degree, and where to find funding. (March 2024)

NAIA all but bans its transgender college athletes from women's sports

FILE - NAIA women’s basketball players gather after a game in St. Louis, Feb. 22, 2024. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, said Monday that transgender athletes would be all but banned from women's sports.
FILE - NAIA women’s basketball players gather after a game in St. Louis, Feb. 22, 2024. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, said Monday that transgender athletes would be all but banned from women's sports.

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, announced a policy Monday that all but bans transgender athletes from competing in women's sports.

The NAIA's Council of Presidents approved the policy in a 20-0 vote. The NAIA, which oversees some 83,000 athletes at schools across the country, is believed to be the first college sports organization to take such a step.

According to the transgender participation policy, all athletes may participate in NAIA-sponsored male sports but only athletes whose biological sex assigned at birth is female and have not begun hormone therapy will be allowed to participate in women's sports.

A student who has begun hormone therapy may participate in activities such as workouts, practices and team activities, but not in interscholastic competition.

"With the exception of competitive cheer and competitive dance, the NAIA created separate categories for male and female participants," the NAIA said. "Each NAIA sport includes some combination of strength, speed and stamina, providing competitive advantages for male student-athletes. As a result, the NAIA policy for transgender student-athletes applies to all sports except for competitive cheer and competitive dance, which are open to all students."

There is no known number of transgender athletes at the high school and college levels, though it is believed to be small. The topic has become a hot-button issue for those for and against transgender athletes competing on girls' and women's sports teams.

At least 24 states have laws barring transgender women and girls from competing in certain women's or girls sports competitions. Last month, more than a dozen current and former college athletes filed a federal lawsuit against the NCAA, accusing the sports governing body for more than 500,000 athletes of violating their rights by allowing transgender women to compete in women's sports.

The Biden administration originally planned to release a new federal Title IX rule — the law forbids discrimination based on sex in education — addressing both campus sexual assault and transgender athletes. But earlier this year, the department decided to split them into separate rules, and the athletics rule now remains in limbo even as the sexual assault policy moves forward.

Hours after the NAIA announcement, the NCAA released a statement: "College sports are the premier stage for women's sports in America and the NCAA will continue to promote Title IX, make unprecedented investments in women's sports and ensure fair competition for all student-athletes in all NCAA championships."

The NCAA has had a policy for transgender athlete participation in place since 2010, which called for one year of testosterone suppression treatment and documented testosterone levels submitted before championship competitions. In 2022, the NCAA revised its policies on transgender athlete participation in an attempt to align with national sport governing bodies, following the lead of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

The three-phase implementation of the policy included a continuation of the 2010 policy, requiring transgender women to be on hormone replacement therapy for at least one year, plus the submission of a hormone-level test before the start of both the regular season and championship events.

The third phase adds national and international sport governing body standards to the NCAA's policy and is scheduled to be implemented for the 2024-25 school year on August 1.

There are some 15.3 million public high school students in the United States and a 2019 study by the CDC estimated 1.8% of them — about 275,000 — are transgender. The number of athletes within that group is much smaller; a 2017 survey by Human Rights Campaign suggested fewer than 15% of all transgender boys and transgender girls play sports.

The number of NAIA transgender athletes would be far smaller.

Humanities degrees are tougher sell for international students 

FILE - People walk near the campus center at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., Dec. 9, 2013.
FILE - People walk near the campus center at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., Dec. 9, 2013.

That’s the argument of one Princeton undergraduate from South Korea.

OPT, the government program that allows college students to work in the US for a short time after graduation without securing a work visa, is biased toward STEM degree holders.

As a result, many international students forego humanities, or choose tech or consulting jobs when their passions lie elsewhere.

Read Siyeon Lee’s argument in the Princetonian. (March 2024)

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