Researchers use GPS data to home in on depression and social anxiety

Using Android phones, an app and Amazon cloud services, the researchers gauged study participants’ feelings a half-dozen times a day to pinpoint links between avoiding social contact and depression. 
By Jack McCarthy
08:23 AM

Researchers looking to confirm a link between avoidance of social contact and increased anxiety and depression gathered supporting data by having students use an Android mobile phone with a special app to report information in combination with GPS input.

A study published in the March issue of the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that higher social anxiety was associated with more time spent at home.

The researchers, from the University of Virginia and Missouri University of Science and Technology, recruited 72 undergraduate participants from a southeast university and installed an app called Sensus on their personal mobile phones, which repeatedly collected self-reported responses and GPS location data for up to 2 weeks.

The app was programmed to randomly prompt them up to 6 times per day and the app collected GPS location data every 150 seconds and uploaded it to a secure Amazon Simple Storage Service server.

Participants provided up to 6 separate ratings for current positive and negative feelings and each scale was coded from 0 to 100. The researchers indexed social isolation by the percentage of time a participant spent at home relative to other locations.

Detailed analysis of the data confirmed the researchers’ expectations.

“Specifically, these findings are consistent with a wealth of research demonstrating that, in general, how (good or bad) people feel influences their desire to seek out or avoid others or engage in activities outside the home (in our case, socially anxious individuals tending to spend more time at home),” the survey said. “We further found that spending more time at home is associated with higher negative affect that day.”

The degree to which someone seeks out or avoids social contact and engages in activities that provide reinforcement from the environment, is closely related to this situation, they added.

The study can be used as a starting point for further examinations that integrate fine-grained location data with self-reported feelings on site.

“Given the ubiquity of mobile phones in our society,” the authors concluded, “understanding how to leverage and integrate seemingly disparate forms of actively and passively sensed data has strong potential to address the growing needs for mental health monitoring and treatment.”

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