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I already know what makes me anxious: watching my paycheck haemorrhage, yet another round of daycare sickness and the climate crisis. But naming my anxiety brings it from the shadows, shining a light on feelings that tend to do their dirtiest work in the dark.
Can our phones help us to improve our mood?Credit: Getty
Noting what makes me happy is also a helpful practice, one which helps me realise that, most of the time, my mood is pretty positive. As someone who has battled mental health and anxiety in the past, it helps me see how far I’ve come.
Apple’s new mental health features, launching in Australia in late September are a natural extension of the health features released nearly a decade ago. I’ve spent the past few weeks testing the features, which allow you to track your state of mind, logging daily moods – from very unpleasant to very pleasant – and considering what might be affecting the way you feel.
In theory, mood-tracking apps are a great idea.
Dr Lauren Cheung, who works in the clinical team at Apple and was involved with developing the features, points out that diagnoses for depression and anxiety have increased by 25 per cent worldwide in the last three years.
“We know mental health is just as important as physical health. And so, we’re designing tools that really help give our users insights into both and the connections between the two,” Cheung tells me, explaining that charts allow users to see how moods change over time relating to other data from the Health app, like sleep, exercise or even menstrual cycle.
By monitoring our moods (defined as the longer-lasting states that spill over from our emotions) and understanding the triggers, the idea is that we develop self-awareness and can make better decisions about how we spend our time and emotional energy. It might also help us see when we’re in need of some help.
There are hundreds of thousands of health apps on the markets, many of which are directed at wellbeing or mental health and incorporate mood tracking. But, how well do they work in practice?
In June, Jeannie Paterson, a professor of law and co-director of Centre for AI and Digital Ethics at the University of Melbourne, published a report with her colleagues analysing popular mental health and wellbeing apps (the not-yet-released Apple app was not included).
They found the evidence of the efficacy of automated mental health and mindfulness apps is generally lacking and expressed concerns about their privacy.
Though apps assure users their personal data will not be sold or shared, once it is aggregated and anonymised, it’s not personal data anymore. Most of the apps did share anonymised, aggregated data with advertisers and even employers.
“You don’t need personal characteristics for that data to be used in ways that are harmful, manipulative or at least privacy invading,” she explains. This is because the data can be used to profile characteristics about certain groups, which can then affect everything from advertising or insurance to employment.
“The idea that ‘we don’t use your name and address’ is kind of irrelevant in a digitised world.”
Data in Apple’s Health app is never shared with third parties without the user’s explicit permission and Apple cannot read customer health data by default.
Graphics on Apple’s new mental health feature.
However, for those who choose to share diagnostic data with Apple and opt in to share health-related information, to improve activity, fitness, and health features: “Health and fitness data is aggregated in a way that does not personally identify you.”
And though Paterson says mood tracking is less invasive than some other mental health apps, she worries about those who track their mood, without the support of a psychologist, and find they are feeling worse.
”Most psychologists would say mood tracking can be useful,” she says. “And maybe digital mental health is a way forward. We would just say be careful because something that works in the real world with a pen or with a therapist doesn’t necessarily work when you’re doing it on your own, through a mobile device.“
However, Cheung assures that, if someone logs a number of negative moods over the course of a month, the Apple feature prompts them to take an assessment (the Generalised Anxiety Disorder or the Patient Health Questionnaires) and seek help. The app also directs users to local help services (in Australia, it’s Beyond Blue) and provides facts sheets about mental wellbeing, as well as tips for managing it.
Apple also addresses a common problem with mood-tracking apps: that people tend to avoid entering negative emotions.
“We spent a lot of time really thinking about the design of the images [corresponding to different moods] because those visuals need to ensure that the unpleasant moods feel just as acceptable to a user as the pleasant ones,” Cheung says.
It takes less than a minute to log your mood each day, sliding along the bar and clicking on the relevant mood. Neutral is reflected by emanating blue circles, very unpleasant emanates a violet octagram while very pleasant emanates an orange flower. Prompts then ask you to click on the word that best describes the feeling and consider what, from a list of options, is having the biggest impact.
I’ve become a fan of Apple’s Heath features, and our mental wellbeing is an essential part of that. The features have made me more aware of what influences mine, though for privacy purposes I’ve now turned off my diagnostics.
But, I do wonder whether being on our phones more can ever be the answer to improved mental health?
“A lot of the problems of loneliness, low self-esteem, bullying, and online abuse… come from being connected,” says Paterson. “It’s not clear that being connected more is the solution for good mental health.”
There are days I dismiss the daily reminder I’ve set to log my mood. It’s telling, I think. Sometimes the only way to know how we’re really doing is to look up from our phones.
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