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Apple working on technology that can detect depression, anxiety, cognitive decline in users — and some observers are not thrilled

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Photo by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

Apple is developing technology to help diagnose depression and cognitive decline in users through sensor data related to mobility, physical activity, sleep patterns, and typing behavior, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The Journal added that researchers are aiming to "tease out digital signals associated with the target conditions so that algorithms can be created to detect them reliably" on Apple devices.

What are the details?

Detection of anxiety and autism also are in the works, the New York Post reported.

More from the paper:

The depression and cognitive decline features would reportedly use extensive personal data collected by sensors on Apple devices like iPhones and Apple Watches, including information about users' sleep patterns, physical activity, typing behavior and more.

Apple is reportedly working on the effort alongside researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, who are studying stress, anxiety and depression. The tech giant is also collaborating with drugmaker Biogen Inc., which is studying cognitive decline, according to the Journal.

A third reported collaboration, with Duke University, uses the iPhone's camera to observe young children's physical behavior and help detect autism.

The Post said Apple did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the report.

The paper added that the projects reportedly are still in early research stages, and it's unclear if the work will ever lead to applications that are made available to Apple users.

Are iPhones already contributing to mental health issues?

A growing body of research indicates that smartphones and related devices may be contributing to mental health difficulties, the Post said.

More from the paper:

A 2019 study from researchers at the University of Arizona found that smartphone dependency among 18 to 20 year-olds "predicts higher reports of depressive symptoms and loneliness." A 2017 paper from San Diego and Florida State researchers showed that heavy usage of smartphones and social media among teens was associated with higher rates of mental health issues and suicide.

Yet Apple Chief Operating Officer Jeff Williams, who heads the company's health unit, has "enthusiastically" told employees that the company has the potential to help address rising rates of anxiety and depression, sources told the Journal.

Privacy issues

Of course, the idea that iPhones can be designed to pick up potential mental illness in users has folks concerned about privacy. The Post said Apple already faced pushback this year over a plan to scan images on users' devices for child pornography, which led to Apple postponing and modifying the feature.

But documents the Journal reviewed indicated that Apple's algorithms detecting mental health issues wouldn't send data to the tech giant and only users would receive findings, the paper added.

How are folks reacting to the news?

The idea of iPhones, etc., detecting symptoms of mental health disorders in users so far doesn't seem all that popular with folks who commented on the Wall Street Journal's story on Twitter:

  • "This tech will be abused in the future," one commenter declared.
  • "Maybe spend those resources on the study of how addicting social media is and how they purposely give people gratification and validation while ignoring the harms that can do to an undeveloped mind .. sad very sad," another user wrote.
  • "Hey @Apple, stay the F away from my 'health,'" another commenter exclaimed.
  • "iPhones and social media are causing depression," another user noted. "Instead of using our data, like facial expressions, typing style(?), sleep activity… maybe just make people limit time on their phone. I heard on NPR that Alexa was going to study your voice for depression and alert you. Just [nuts]."
  • "[Apple is] trying to solve a problem it created," another commenter observed.
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