We spend a sickening amount of time on our smartphones, gadgets and social media, texting, swiping and, updating our statuses, posting selfies and doing other benign millennial tasks that keep us at arms length from one another. A lot of the time, we leave many of the notifications we receive unread (as I write this post, there are over a dozen unread notifications on my own Facebook account). Many commentators have said that in the 21st century, we’re not just connected to one another—we’re over-connected.
A company called Social Clinic is staffed by doctors who want to find out how social (or anti-social) we are outside of the cozy glow of social media. Interactive designers Chang Liu, Oryan Inbar and Ava Huang are using facial recognition technology to tell how someone is really feeling and how sociable they are. Liu in particular said that everyone is affected by this to varying degrees. “We all have some social issues, whether it’s using the phone too much or taking too many selfies or social awkwardness,” said Liu. “So we’re trying to make something that draws people’s attention to the fact that they are a kind of patient and diagnose their potential social symptoms.”
Participants fill out a survey about their social media habits and how they communicate through devices, which is a method known as computer mediated communication. Their picture is then taken with the “Face Ray” that measures emotion with facial recognition software. Algorithms are used to record an individual’s emotions, such as anger, surprise, sadness and happiness, comparing them to their survey responses. A printer then prints out a diagnosis and a prescription. Some results include Social Awkwardness, Selfie Syndrome and “Phubbing” (snubbing human interaction in favor of checking their smartphone).
While not meant to actually diagnose an underlying issue, Social Clinic’s work can be connected to a far more serious issue. Studies have linked heavy social media use to mental illness. One in four teens have said they were online “almost constantly” and could exacerbate mental conditions that have yet to be diagnosed. While the authors of this particular study did not say that egregious social media use had a direct effect, it could play a factor. “It could be that teens with mental health problems are seeking out interactions as they are feeling isolated and alone,” said Dr. Hugues Sampasa-Kanyinga, the study’s lead author, to The Huffington Post. “Or they would like to satisfy unmet needs for face-to-face mental health support,” she continued. Her study confirmed a 2012 study linking excessive social media use to depression.
However, Sampasa-Kanyinga stated that the problem was not as cut and dry as linking social media use to mental health issues. “The relationship between the use of social networking sites and mental health problems is complex,” Sampasa-Kanyinga said. “Simple use of social networking sites cannot fully explain by itself the occurrence of mental health problems.”
Another solution that has been suggested is to get mental health resources onto social media. “We see social networking sites, which may be a problem for some, also being a solution,” said Dr. Brenda K. Wiederhold of the Interactive Media Institute in San Diego. “Since teens are on the sites, it is the perfect place for public health and service providers to reach out and connect with this vulnerable population and provide health promotion systems and supports.”
While facial recognition software can help detect some symptoms of a bigger underlying issue, it is yet to be determined if it can play a central role in diagnosing them. But with further research and development, scientists and doctors may soon be able to catch, diagnose and treat symptoms of mental health problems through advancements in social networking and technology.