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What Our Digital Footprint Says About Our Health07:31
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New data from analytics company comScore shows that during a three-month span between April and June, 49 percent of U.S. smartphone users did not download any apps during each month. (Carl Court/Getty Images)
New data from analytics company comScore shows that during a three-month span between April and June, 49 percent of U.S. smartphone users did not download any apps during each month. (Carl Court/Getty Images)
This article is more than 1 year old.

Tech companies are looking for ways that our online habits — what we post on Facebook or how often we touch our phones — shed light on our physical and emotional health.

It’s called digital phenotyping. On Point took up the subject Tuesday with New York Times technology reporter Natasha Singer.

“It's a way of examining people's interactions with digital devices, like how fast you click and scroll,” Singer told our guest host, Jane Clayson. “Are you picking up your phone in the middle of the night? Researchers and tech companies are trying to figure out if they can determine signals of health or disease in that behavior.”

For example, Facebook recently announced an algorithm that scans everyone’s posts to try to see if someone might be exhibiting signs of suicidal thoughts, Singer said. Those algorithms could flag the posts and send them up to a human to review.

Along with the promise, there are some ethical dilemmas, she pointed out. You can only opt out of the service by opting out of Facebook entirely.

“There’s no question that they're trying to do good,” Singer said. “The problem is just a larger issue which is, once you have tech companies implementing unilateral suicide detection or algorithms, then they can also very easily develop Alzheimer's detection algorithms or depression detection algorithms or addiction detection algorithms, and also say that we are doing this for good. And it becomes very surveillance and Big Brother.”

From The Reading List:

New York Times: How Companies Scour Our Digital Lives For Clues To Our Health — "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 physical and mental health."

This segment aired on February 27, 2018.

Brian Amaral Twitter Digital Producer, On Point
Brian was a digital producer for On Point.

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