Future Tense

 Can Smartphones Cure Depression? Probably Not.

Scientists are looking to ditch leather couches and M.D.s and instead combat depression with smartphones. Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine is in the midst of developing a trio of technologies to help users manage tough times, according to Kurzweil AI.

  • A smartphone uses GPS technology to track the user’s activity; the phone would learn what behaviors signal that an individual is engaging in social activity. For example, if one is moving about and making phone calls, everything is fine. But if someone is sitting inside for hours with no outside communication, depression could be setting in. So the phone will generate a message encouraging him or her to seek out friends.
  • A medicine bottle both reminds the patient to take any prescribed antidepressants, and uses a system that monitors the patient’s condition (symptoms of depression and drug side effects) and communicates with doctors about the user’s progress.
  • A virtual game helps those struggling with social situations learn how to approach certain human interactions

I understand the premise. In a society that runs on Internet, things can get depressing, as suggested by research that connects Facebook to depression. And why not battle technology’s negative effects with other tech? A recent study in Israel found that teens found comfort in the anonymity of blogging. But this depression-battling technology still raises some questions.

First, how does this technology fit into Food and Drug Administration approval? The FDA released preliminary guidelines for certain medical apps in July. But only those apps that transform a mobile device into a medical one (like a stethoscope) and those that help doctors make diagnoses are currently subject to government safety and effectiveness approval. If the FDA doesn’t have to approve the game meant to teach users to make friends, how are would-be customers supposed to know whether the app is effective? And the medicine bottle that communicates patient information raises privacy concerns.

Secondly, can technology really replace the benefits of human interaction provided by talking to a trained therapist? While virtual games can be effective teaching tools, using a computer to teach someone about human interaction seems paradoxical. Though Marla Paul explains that the game teaches assertiveness techniques in the “safety of a virtual space” in a Northwestern article on the game, I would still assume that practicing such techniques with a live human being would be more effective.

But the big question is: If you’re already feeling alone and depressed, wouldn’t a text message from your phone telling you to go socialize make you even lonelier?