Your digital footprint — how often you post on social media, how quickly you scroll through your contacts, how frequently you check your phone late at night — could hold clues to your health.
That is the theory behind an emerging field, digital phenotyping, that is trying to assess people’s well-being based on their digital interactions. Researchers and technology companies are tracking users’ social media posts, calls, scrolls and clicks in search of behavior changes that could correlate with disease symptoms. People typically touch their phones 2,617 per day, said one study — leaving a trail of data to mine.
“Our interactions with the digital world could actually unlock secrets of disease,” said Dr. Sachin H. Jain, chief executive of CareMore Health, a health system, who has helped study Twitter posts for signs of sleep problems. Similar approaches, he said, might help gauge whether patients’ medicines are working.
The field is so new, however, that even proponents warn that some digital phenotyping may be no better at detecting health problems than a crystal ball. If a sociable person stopped texting friends, for instance, it might indicate that he or she had become depressed, said Dr. Steve Steinhubl, director of digital medicine at the Scripps Translational Science Institute in San Diego. Or “it could mean that somebody’s just going on a camping trip.”