IWK smartphone study shows the effect of social isolation on mental health

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In recent months public health measures, such as social distancing, have been effective tools in reducing the rapid spread of COVID-19. Studies have shown, however, that social isolation is associated with higher rates of anxiety, depression, and poorer sleep. A study out of the IWK Health Centre and Dalhousie’s Faculty of Computer Science hopes that by observing how people use their cell phones they will learn how the population is reacting to feelings of social isolation during the pandemic. Those observations will help to design a tool that helps to engage users and promote behaviours that counteract negative effects of social isolation.

Rita Headshot
Dr.Rita Orji

“Most smartphones have built in sensing technology that give us a hint on how much people comply with social distancing regulations,” says Dr. Rita Orji, computer scientist and co-principal investigator. “But smartphones can also tell us how people are dealing with social distancing in the ways they keep in touch and close to others.”

Almost 80 per cent of Canadians own at least one smartphone. Data from built-in global positioning system (GPS) and Bluetooth can determine where people are, whether they have left their home and how physically close they are to other people. Smartphone usage can also help identify how people are compensating for lack of social contact in person by recording the number of contacts, calls, messages and apps that are being used.

A mobile sensing app developed by the research team will be placed on the smartphone of study participants. The app will objectively and passively record social distancing as well as counterbalancing behaviours of 500 people with and without mental disorders and study their impact on mental health during the crisis and at a three-month follow-up.

Dr. Sandra Meier

“A mobile sensing app might further enable us to directly respond to the behaviour of people during a pandemic,” says psychologist and principal investigator Dr. Sandra Meier. “Feedback loops could be created to directly encourage people to stay in contact with others. The remote detection of extreme self-isolation during a pandemic and promotion of alternative strategies to stay socially connected, might be crucial both for the short- and long-term prevention of negative mental health consequences, especially among vulnerable populations.”

This study is one of 40 made possible by the Nova Scotia COVID-19 Research Coalition, which includes the IWK Health Centre and IWK Foundation. The coalition has made a collective investment of just over $1.5 million in COVID-19 focused research.