Smartphones come with sensors that track behaviours such as our internet history, where we go, music we listen to, and to whom we speak. The habitual nature of people means this data could be used to gain insight into our mental well-being.

Picture this: you’ve just had an important exam at university that didn’t go well despite all the time you spent studying. You frown as you scroll through your Spotify playlist called “Bluesdays” searching for the perfect gloomy beat to match your mood. Just as you go to select R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” a message pops from your phone, “Hey, it looks like you’re feeling a bit down, do you want to go for a walk in the park?”

It sounds like science fiction, but this could soon be a real capability for smartphones. This isn’t just a dream for the distant future either—most of the information needed to gauge people’s moods is already collected every day from a run-of-the-mill smartphone. Dr Dana Bradford, one of our eHealth senior research scientists, is tackling the big questions of how we might balance the risks and benefits of these technological advancements.

“Smartphone technology is so clever now that it has the potential to be used as a psychotherapist,” Dr Bradford says. “My question is: just because we can, does that mean we should?”

The doctor is in…the phone

There are a number of ways your smartphone could help track your mood, Dr Bradford says: “We can track the kinds of songs we play when we’re in a good mood verses a low mood, and we can determine your mood through messenger chats and even your Facebook posts using natural language processing. Your choice of location and companionship can give an indication of mood, too—people often go to certain locations in certain moods and when you’re feeling really down, there’s that friend that always picks you up.”

“For example, we know that the corners of your mouth and eyes can give an indication of mood, so if you have facial recognition on your phone and it picks up that you look sad, coupled with melancholic songs playing or language processing indicating morose texts, then perhaps you can have a little chat agent comes up and makes a healthy suggestion. “We know what people often do when they’re happy, so prompts that are associated with positive well-being could very well lift their mood in that instance, instead of letting them potentially spiral—it’s very hard to get people out of depression once they’ve gone down that spiral.”

A double-edged sword

While this technology has the potential to help people across the world, it’s not without its concerns. Other than the potential breach of privacy, it’s also necessary to consider whether this kind of treatment is right for everyone. “This is where the ‘just because we can, doesn’t mean we should’ comes into it. If somebody is suffering from paranoia, and all of a sudden their phone is saying ‘Hmm, you seem a bit down’ it could actually set off an episode of psychosis, so we need to be really careful about what we do and how we go about doing it,” says Dana.

History is littered with clever technology gone wrong. When Siri was first introduced if you asked it “I’m feeling depressed, I might go jump off a bridge” Siri would reply with information about the closest bridges in the area. “That’s the whole conundrum- we’ve got all this information, we need to make sure it’s being put together for the best use of the user, rather than the most clever use of the technology. It comes down to context- what you’re asking and why you need to know- and that’s what we need to get clever about,” says Dana.


Dana’s experience goes well beyond the realm of smartphone apps. “I have a PhD in neuroscience,” says Dana. “Anywhere where neuroscience and technology intersect I’m as happy as a pig in mud.” Dana’s science is all about talking to people. She talked to elderly residents in Australia’s first trial of a smart home for independent living, social workers about predictors of vulnerability, allied health groups about technologies for improved patient communication, and patients about psychological ramifications of cancer as well as technologies to assist managing chronic health, understand genomic healthcare, and foster well-being. She is a member of the three different Genomics Health Alliances, is committed to improving Indigenous health and coordinates AEHRC’s work on technologies for people on the autism spectrum. “I do that in four days a week, and I’m an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Queensland Brain Institute, so one day a week I look at the impact of adult vitamin D deficiency on the brain.“

Out of all of her projects, there’s one that she’s particularly proud to be a part of: CALD Assist. CALD Assist is an iPad app that translates key assessment questions used in hospitals into ten different languages. This allows clinicians to communicate with non-English speakers in the absence of an interpreter.

“Interpreter services are in such demand that you can face long waits for one, while you are lying in hospital not knowing what’s wrong with you, so we worked with Western Health in Melbourne to develop this communication tool. The beautiful thing was the nurses looked at it and said that they needed one too- they can’t call up an interpreter take somebody to the toilet or take them down for x-rays. So we built them a version filled with simple instructions in different languages. Patients can see the instructions written down, spoken through the iPad and often in picture form as well, so it’s a multimodal method of communication that helps the patient really understand what’s happening to them. It’s won a few awards and the difference that it has made for people is really heart-warming. I was really proud to be a part of that team.”

If Dana sounds like someone you’d love to share a beer with in a pub, we’ve got some excellent news for you. She’ll be speaking at the Pint of Science Festival next week in Brisbane, where you can be a part of the conversation about how and if smartphones should be used for mental health. Check out the details here.

Not based in Brissy but still thirsty for science? Pint of Science Festival will be running in 16 cities across Australia. Find your local event here.

What more is there to say? Get your Pint of Science tickets here