That Tweet Might Just Save Your Life: Digital Phenotyping


Your activity on cellphones and other personal devices may provide insights into your health. Observations such as the total time spent on a certain site or app may hold clues to your overall health.

Studying how people interact with their devices is called digital phenotyping, and in theory it will allow certain companies to assess your physical and mental health. In this theoretical situation, a company will analyze all types of digital behavior and look for patterns or significant trends that might align with symptoms of different diseases.

The choice to be in one of these studies is dependent on the company, as some provide the option to withdraw from the study while others do not. However, because the field of digital phenotype is relatively new the correlation between digital habits and your health may not actually exist. Some of the proposed parallels between the two are based on a predisposition rather than an observed interaction and therefore can be hard to substantiate.

If the correlations do exist, then these studies can help diagnose serious diseases and afflictions very quickly. The average phone user touches their phone 2,617 times a day, while an above average user might touch their phone somewhere near 5,427 times a day. Roughly half of all mobile phone owners access the internet primarily on their phones, which provides a significant amount of data. All of those taps and swipes are recorded along with what application you were running and how quickly you were making those touches. A Dr. Steve Steinhbul gave The New York Times a hypothetical example: someone who is usually quite social who then abruptly stops responding to friends and family, might be suffering from depression.

The broad spectrum of digital health isn’t a new concept and has actually made large advancements in the medical field. In November of 2017, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first digital pill that collects data from inside your system and sends it to an external source. You can then read all of the data right from your phone.

The popularity of digital phenotyping is growing as its applications encompass more specific diseases. If the field continues to grow and get more accurate, your cell phone might just save your life one day.

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