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It may seem true that teenagers have cellphones surgically attached to their ears, or to their fingers for texting.

And, according to Dr. Stewart Shankman, chief psychologist and a researcher at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, the bond between the teenager and the cellphone is a close one indeed.

“Teens often live on their phones,” Shankman tells Evanston Now.

So Shankman is heading an NU investigation (in cooperation with Columbia University in New York City) on whether monitoring teenage cellphone usage can help detect emotional troubles.

This study is not about whether cellphone usage causes such troubles.

Rather, Shankman says the goal is to determine if what a teen watches, listens to, calls, or interacts with on the phone “can be a tool in which we can assess depression,” and then lead to intervention and help.

Although the study has been under way for some time, NU’s NEAR Lab (Northwestern Emotion and Risk Laboratory) is now actively recruiting more participants (ages 14-18), who are paid for their time. Parental permission is required.

As part of the recruitment, NU even has put placard/advertisements on “L” train cars.

Shankman says the university wants more than just individuals from well-to-do parts of Evanston.

“We don’t want just the very affluent,” he explains.

“We want wide participation, representive of what depression is like in the real world.”

Shankman explains that, using a privacy-compliant app, the study detects certain metrics from cellphone usage, such as language, where general sentiments and word types can be a sign of depression.

Such observation, Shankman says, can be seen as similar to a glucose meter worn by a diabetic, which notifies the individual if there is an unsafe variation.

He says the study seeks to determine whether cell phone technology can be used the same way to detect depression.

If so, there might be a way to “act instead of waiting” to provide assistance.

This could be “especially important for mental health,” Shankman explains, because “lack of motivation is a symptom,” where a person who needs help does not make an effort to get it.

How a cellphone is used, Shankman says, could be a “proxy” for detecting mental health problems.

The study is collecting aggregate data, so a specific individual is not identified. The results would just say, for example, person #3, without revealing who that person is.

The research project still has two more years to run, so a conclusion is not imminent.

However, if the premise turns out to be correct, and cellphone usage can help trace depression, then a lot of other issues will have to be addressed before moving from aggregate data to tracking and helping a specific person.

Among those issues are privacy, and who gets notified if a particular teen is found to be showing symptoms of depression.

Shankman says parents might decide to have their teen take part if, say, that teen had just been discharged from the hospital for a suicide attempt. An app, tracking key depression-symbolic words during phone usage, could then help lead to intervention.

Or, Shankman says, another possibility is that “health care professionals can use the system to remind individuals about taking their medication.”

Participation in the study is for one year, with payment of $520. About 75 volunteers are needed.

For more information, send an email to NUCU@northwestern.edu.

As with most scientific studies, this one will take time.

But, Shankman says, “the hope and the dream” is to be able to take something which is part of a teenager’s existence, the cellphone, and turn it into something which might even help save that teenager’s life.

“That,” says Shankman, “is absolutely the hope down the road.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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