When you think about how intertwined the smartphone has become with our daily lives, it’s easy to forget that just over a decade or so, the technology didn’t even exist. Now, my iPhone is basically an extension of my body; it’s my social life, my wallet and now my COVID-19 pass. Smartphones are already being used for medical-related purposes: screening for conditions from autism to pancreatic cancer, managing ultrasound wands and even cardiac monitors… The list goes on. And believe it or not, but soon enough, that sleek, thin device in your pocket, powered by a small silicone chip, could even be used to monitor your own state of mind.
A recent report by The Wall Street Journal has broken the news that Apple is allegedly working on ways to help detect and diagnose conditions such as depression, anxiety and cognitive decline using iPhones. Researchers working on the project hope that collecting and analysing data, such as mobility and sleeping patterns, will help stop certain behaviours associated with mental health conditions.
It’s been reported that other measures could also be used to collect data including facial expression analysis, as well as heart and respiration rates. Although this may seem invasive on the surface, Apple has reassured users that no data will be sent to their servers—with all processing taking place on a localised level, strictly on the device only. My advice? Take this with a pinch of salt.
While the idea of using emerging technologies to benefit mental well-being is not a new phenomenon, it’s actually been in the academic pipeline for some time now. The University of California is currently studying stress, anxiety and depression using data from Apple Watches and iPhones. Currently, 3,000 volunteers are being used in the study which is scheduled to start this year after a successful pilot phase began in 2020, recording data from 150 volunteers. The research will be used to guide Apple in its quest to build technologies that will supposedly make us happier.
Along with detecting mental health conditions, Apple is also honing its sites to better combat cognitive decline through assisted technology. One of the most influential studies in this challenge is being led by the pharmaceutical firm Biogen. The multinational’s research will analyse how monitoring data, gathered by 20,000 iPhones and Apple Watches, could help identify links between physical activity levels, smartphone use and cognitive function. The goal: to use those particular data points to track brain function over time, hoping to catch mild signs of cognitive impairment—which could advance to more sinister disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease—as early as possible.
The study will follow an early-stage investigation conducted by Apple with Eli Lilly (another American pharmaceutical company) to uncover connections between tech use and cognitive function. In 2019, researchers found that individuals already diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or dementia typed slower, sent fewer text messages and used devices more erratically than those with healthy cognitive function.
So the scientific, objective data is somewhat unanimous—at least in suggesting that emerging technologies could be beneficial in helping us detect both mental health conditions and forms of cognitive impairments. But the question of whether we should is far more complex. At first glance, it seems like a no-brainer—it could help detect (and protect) people from often debilitating conditions and ultimately benefit the lives of millions. Secondly, in 2021, with the vast majority of the population owning a smartphone, it would be an easy and convenient way to monitor our health. Heck, we use it for tracking our steps, our sleep schedule, or favourite take-away pizza—why not give away another piece of that precious data?
But that’s where it gets tricky… To what point do we trust leading tech companies with arguably the most sensitive, private and personal data we possess, our own mental state? Moreover, although there is scientific backing behind this project suggesting it could be implemented with little to no misdiagnosis, there is always the chance a device could make a mistake.
The repercussions of being misdiagnosed with a mental health condition purely from a data fault could be incredibly detrimental. Taking the placebo effect into the equation, it could lead to someone believing they do in fact have the condition, so much so they actually develop the condition. And don’t even get me started on the issues of data breaches. Although, admittedly, the risk of this is minimal due to the fact that Apple has so far promised us all data will remain solely on the localised devices.
It all seems a little ironic, especially given how smartphone addiction and social media has been shown to have adverse effects on our mental wellbeing. Ultimately, however, I do believe it was only a matter of time before big tech companies latched onto the emerging psycho-technology market. And putting the ethical issue of privacy aside, it does seem like Apple’s new venture could help countless people across the planet. The pandemic has, unfortunately, put mental health at the forefront of our minds and technology like this may be one of the key solutions to the problem. Only time will tell whether Apple has finally put the well-being of people as its number one priority. For now though, I wouldn’t put my money (or data) on it.
There are some things we would rather not know. To stare trance-like at a social media news feed, awaiting shallow nudges of approval, is seen as tragic and shameful. Yet this condition is already commonplace. In the culture of internet addiction, abstinence is far more novel than immersion. Well, they say the first stage of recovery is to accept you have a problem…
Last Tuesday I updated my iPhone to iOS 12. With the help of Apple’s new Screen Time feature, I discovered that I pick up my phone an average of 148 times a day. My most used app is Instagram which I use for 52 minutes a day. I have now set myself an App Limit on Instagram, barring me from the app if my daily usage exceeds 1 hour. I got a five-minute warning just now actually, which prompted me to return to editing this article!
When I shared these stats on Instagram (aptly) many friends expressed fears that their own stats would be just as bad or worse and were worried about uncovering the scale of their compulsions.
Of course, this information could have been revealed to us many updates ago. So why did Apple do this now, and what’s in it for them? Unlike Facebook and Google, Apple primarily ships hardware, so it doesn’t rely on the clicks generated by advertising revenue. On several occasions CEO Tim Cook has taken the moral high ground on issues such as privacy where his Facebook counterpart Mark Zuckerberg has lost public trust—the Cambridge Analytica scandal is no exception. Meanwhile sociologists have been spilling ink on internet addiction long enough for it to have entered the public consciousness, and Apple’s humane veneer is bolstered by the company’s active role in that conversation.
What interests me, both as an artist and as a phone user, is how these usage patterns have affected our thought processes and creativity. Once I had uncovered my Screen Time data I couldn’t stop thinking about the neural impulse that guides my hands to my device 148 times in a 24 hour period. It happens without any conscious thought. Before I’ve made a decision I’m already scrolling.
What am I hoping for socially when I reach for that phone? The sharing compulsion seems hard-wired into my thoughts. I walk the streets, my hand hovering safely beside my left jeans pocket, while fresh thoughts and observations find their form as potential messages or Insta Stories, before I’ve even had time to edit or reflect on them.
The impulse of the artist to share their world with an audience is well-understood. The life of an artist can be lonely and full of creative struggle. Days are spent wrestling an indescribable feeling into an articulate, impactful form. But what happens when that struggle can be bypassed? I have often posted passing thoughts, barely edited, only to archive them hours or even moments later when the whim has diminished. This process feels true to the ephemeral nature of thoughts and true to the increasingly necessary practice of mindfulness. But what is the most healthy way to handle this emotional cognitive detritus?
We are quick to associate our online actions with our identity, to the point where criticism feels instantly personal. But realistically, I wouldn’t want my passing thoughts to be held as representative of me. I need platforms which mirror the fluidity and transience of my own impulses. Younger users are increasingly keeping a ‘9 or below’ policy with posts on their Instagram profiles, systematically deleting content that has lost urgency. I feel this approach is more healthy and I hope platforms will respond to it.
I do resent Apple for dropping this bombshell on us so late in the day. For over a decade it has, along with Facebook and Google, uncritically forced upon us a means of communication that plays on our deepest fears and desires. Only now are we being shown the damage. Perhaps the harshest truth is that a lot of our screen time is idle, spent in expectation. Once distracted, it can be hard to shift our attention and concentrate. And, in the spirit of Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism, it’s on us to strive towards rehabilitation.
My recommendation to fellow phone addicts wary of catching their digital reflection is to avoid feelings of shame. Remind yourself that the world of work, our social life, and the culture industry are all tightly bound up with our devices. We can’t blame ourselves for trying to get by. However, with this new information, we can be wiser with our boundaries, and notice when we’re simply hanging on the telephone.