Diagnosing Depression Symptoms via Web Use

Those suffering from depression know that it’s a many-tentacled monster that worms its way into every aspect of daily life. However, even those afflicted with the disease may not be fully aware of the extent to which it affects not just their moods, but also their actions. A new article from the New York Times shines a light on the ways in which depression can impact something as simple as the way we search the Internet, and the results are truly astonishing.

Rates of depression among college students

The study, entitled, Associating Internet Usage with Depressive Behavior Among College Students, was conducted over the course of a month in February 2014. Led by Raghavendra Kotikalapudi, researchers began with the unsettling statistic that one in four college students endures some level of depression throughout their academic career. In the words of the study’s authors, “26.1% of U.S. students nationwide reported feeling so sad or hopeless almost every day for 2 or more weeks in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities.” As a result of that number, which was reported by the CDC in 2009, the study’s authors hoped to collect enough information to aid these troubled students in detecting and responding to a disease that’s notoriously difficult to understand.

Information about traffic flow

For the study, 216 undergraduates at the Missouri University of Science and Technology volunteered to fill out the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale, a form that has been widely adopted in measuring depression levels. The results of the Depression Scale survey indicated that about 30 percent of the students enrolled in the program demonstrated symptoms of varying degrees of depression. From there, the scientists collected “information about traffic flow” from the participants. It’s important to point out here that the researchers, operating under a desire to protect their subjects’ anonymity, did not collect information on what specifically the students were doing on the Internet. Rather, the “traffic flow” information gave them data that indicated how they used the Internet. For example, the information gleaned told researchers how a given participant’s email was being used, not the content of the email or the other participants.

This isn’t the first time that researchers have looked to the devices we use day in and day out for hints at potential mood disorders. Researchers at Northwestern, for example, used smartphones as an indicator of depression. According to Kotikalapudi and her colleagues, however, the study conducted at the Missouri University of Science and Technology is the “first to use actual Internet data, collected anonymously and unobtrusively, rather than student-completed surveys about Internet usage.”

High anxiety, low concentration levels

After examining the data, researchers claim to have uncovered two major revelations in the way depressed individuals use the Internet. First, the depressed students tended to engage in Internet usage that indicated, “high levels of sharing files (like movies and music).” Second, depressed people tended to check their email more frequently — which indicated a high level of anxiety — and they tended to switch applications regularly, a phenomenon known as “flow duration entropy” — which indicates an inability to concentrate. Further, tangential evidence indicated that the depressed students enrolled in the study also engaged in more gaming, video watching, and chatting than their counterparts. In other words, those students identified as “depressed” by the initial questionnaire seemed to engage in a higher level of Internet usage overall, specifically veering towards the types of activities that simulate interaction with their fellow man.

The ultimate goal of the study is to create a software program that could indicate when a user is exhibiting symptoms of depression. While the study’s organizers concede that the software wouldn’t replace an in-the-flesh medical professional, they do have hopes for its ability to forewarn potential victims of depression.