Diagnosing depression has typically involved studying our behavior offline, such as our mannerisms or body language. But a recent study out of Missouri University of Science and Technology suggests that how individuals behave on the internet could also indicate help diagnose depression.
The research, which polled 216 college students and was conducted last February, monitored individual Internet use and correlated specific web browsing patterns with high scores on a scale used to identify depressive symptoms.
Researchers used Cisco NetFlow to track and log exactly which sites students were visiting and for how long. Students were then asked to take a survey with embedded questions used to identify depression markers. However, students were not informed of the study's purpose -- to monitor depression levels in relation to browsing habits.
Researchers found that students who scored high on surveys for depressive symptoms followed similar patterns of Internet usage. Excessing chatting, frequent switching between applications and frequent email checking were found to be associated with respondents who demonstrated symptoms of depression, according to the study.
"Difficulty concentrating or making clear decisions are indicators of depressive symptoms among students," the researchers wrote in the study.
Excess online chatting, which can cause social isolation and loneliness in the real world, is another key habit that lends to depression, researchers found.
The finding suggests that smartphones and computers could one day supplement doctors in diagnosing depression, using data collected about us to offer insights into our mental health.
The Missouri University study follows from past research that has linked Internet usage to depression, especially in teens and young adults. Excess use of social networking sites like Facebook has also been associated with teen depression.
However, according to the study, this research is the first that has succeeded in linking internet usage and depressive symptoms with real-time data, while maintaining student's privacy.
Although the study correlates Internet browsing habits and depression, the evidence does not prove that one causes the other.
The next step is going beyond correlating certain Internet usage patterns with depressive symptoms and designing an adoptable system that can identity the potential for depression based on Internet browsing habits.
"The software would be a cost-effective and an in-home tool that could proactively prompt users to seek medical help if their Internet usage patterns indicate possible depression," researcher Sriram Chellappan said in a statement. "The software could also be installed on campus networks to notify counselors of students whose Internet usage patterns are indicative of depressive behavior."
The study will be published in an upcoming issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine.
Monitor (And Restrict) Time Spent Online
Set an alarm on your smartphone or tablet to restrict computer time and induce offline breaks. Or, if you're using a Mac, try out <a href="http://www.gettracktime.com/" target="_hplink">TrackTime</a> to monitor how long you've spent using certain programs or apps -- it even tracks your iTunes listening habits. <a href="http://rescuetime.com/" target="_hplink">RescueTime</a> will also monitor how you're spending (or wasting) time online and help you get smart about how you browse the web, such as by highlighting inefficiencies in how you spend your day. If you are in need of something to keep occupied, try reading a book -- preferably not on an e-reader, but one of those paper thingies you remember from childhood. (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/tlossen/4658086134/" target="_hplink">Image via Flickr</a>, Tim Lossen)
Turn Off Pop-Ups Or Push Notifications
Do you really need to know the exact second you get a message? Turn off Gmail and Outlook pop-ups and instead check your emails in batches, intermittently throughout the day. For example, work for 45 minutes or an hour, then tend to your inbox (check out more Gmail tips <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/18/gmail-help-tips-tricks_n_1182167.html" target="_hplink">here</a> and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/01/gmail-how-to-tips-tricks-help_n_1242775.html" target="_hplink">here</a>). Try doing the same for other apps that flash, bounce, or ding when you receive a message, such as AOL Instant Messenger, or TweetDeck. Instead of constantly having one eye on them, turn to them occasionally to catch up on what you missed. it can almost certainly wait. Apps and plug-ins such as <a href="https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/laankejkbhbdhmipfmgcngdelahlfoji#detail/laankejkbhbdhmipfmgcngdelahlfoji/" target="_hplink">Stay Focused</a>, <a href="https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/cljcgchbnolheggdgaeclffeagnnmhno#detail/cljcgchbnolheggdgaeclffeagnnmhno/" target="_hplink">Nanny for Google Chrome,</a> <a href="https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/leechblock/" target="_hplink">LeechBlock </a>, <a href="http://freeverse.com/mac/product/?id=7013" target="_hplink">Think</a>, and<a href="http://www.focusboosterapp.com/" target="_hplink"> FocusBooster</a> can help you stop yourself from constantly refreshing your Facebook feed, checking on your inbox, or scrolling through your Twitter feed.
Spend some time organizing your email mailbox with color-coded labels and numerous filters. Send regular or daily emails updates that you do not need to read to a folder separate from your regular inbox. These emails are still there for you to peruse, but will not be starring you in the face in your inbox and tempting you to read every. Single. One. (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/kristiewells/6022279419/" target="_hplink">Image via Flickr</a>, Kristie Wells)
Check Your Phone Intermittently
Instead of checking your phone every time it vibrates, disable your notifications. Then, check your phone intermittently throughout the day, reviewing your messages in batches. (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/semicolonth/6080273433/" target="_hplink">Image via Flickr</a>, Karn Sakulsak)
Log Out Of Social Networking Sites
Log out of your social networking sites on your computer and close any and all social networking client apps, such as TweetDeck or HootSuite, in order to reduce the urge to do a quick check. If your Facebook addiction is unrelenting try a <a href="http://webgraph.com/resources/facebookblocker/" target="_hplink">browser extension</a>, such as <a href="https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/cgmnfnmlficgeijcalkgnnkigkefkbhd" target="_hplink">Strict Pomodoro</a> or <a href="http://anti-social.cc/" target="_hplink">Anti-Social</a>, that will block the site, and others you check incessantly, while you're working.
Buy A Productivity App That Kicks You Offline
They exist! There are several tools, such as <a href="http://macfreedom.com/about" target="_hplink">Freedom</a> and <a href="http://visitsteve.com/made/selfcontrol/" target="_hplink">Self-Control</a>, that block certain sites on your PC or Mac for a set period of time. The only way to break the lock while the program is running is to reboot the system, which, as we all know, is pretty annoying. For more ideas, check out <a href="http://the99percent.com/articles/6969/10-Online-Tools-for-Better-Attention-Focus" target="_hplink">the99percent's guide to "10 Online Tools for Better Attention & Focus."</a>
Disconnect Facebook And Twitter From Your Mobile Device
Go one step further and disconnect your social networking sites from your phone or tablet in order to dissuade you from regularly checking them during the day. (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/doos/3868936106/" target="_hplink">Image via Flickr</a>, Rob Enslin)