A study found promising results from allowing people to share stress data with friends and relatives via a mobile app
“It helped remove some of the challenge of expressing feelings for those users who sometimes struggled to do so, and offered new opportunities for people to communicate, either on the app or by starting conversations in real life.” Dr Xianghua Ding, senior lecturer in computer science, University of Glasgow
Wearable technology that enables users to share personal health data with their friends and relatives could provide a new approach to improving mental health, a study suggests.
The research, which was carried out by computing scientists in Scotland and China, involved participants wearing a smartwatch and downloading a free smartphone app called IntimaSea. The app was able to collect heartrate data recorded by the smartwatch, and then present it in graphical terms.
The graphic displayed by the app shows waves on an island shore. Each participant is represented in the graphic by an avatar of a different marine animal, such as a starfish or dolphin. Users can choose whether to share their stress data with a simple click.
A fall in heartrate variability, which suggests heightened stress, causes the avatar to sink lower, showing they might need some support. If the user has chosen to share their data with the other users, those users can then offer help in the form of supportive text messages, emojis, photos, drawings, links to external content or through a phone call. They can assess the impact of their support by tracking the depth of other users’ avatars on their own phone screen.
The research teams ran a two-week feasibility trial among themselves before a four-week test with 19 people, who were split into nine groups of two or three people, consisting of partners, close friends and cousins.
They found that users felt that IntimaSea offered them valuable new insights into the wellbeing of others, and a sense of collective responsibility to maintain the group’s mental health.
The idea behind the app is that not everyone finds it easy to talk about their stress levels and their mental health, even with the people who are closest to them. Dr Xianghua Ding, of the University of Glasgow school of computing science, who led the research, said: “Not everyone finds it easy to talk about their stress levels and their mental health, even with the people who are closest to them. IntimaSea was designed to take away some of that challenge by letting small groups keep tabs on each other and reach out with small displays of support.”
Previous research has shown positive results from enabling individuals to share data on their blood glucose or fertility levels where data regarding blood glucose and fertility levels.
Ding said that the IntimaSea study was a success: “It helped remove some of the challenge of expressing feelings for those users who sometimes struggled to do so, and offered new opportunities for people to communicate, either on the app or by starting conversations in real life.”
She added: “Now that we’ve demonstrated the potential of shared stress tracking for mental health support, we’re keen to build on these early findings. As a standalone app, IntimaSea requires users to actively decide to install it on their devices before they can engage with it.
“If its functionaility could be built into the operating system of the device, or integrated into an already widely-used app like WeChat or WhatsApp, it would be much more likely to reach the kind of critical mass of users who would benefit from using it. We hope that in future studies we can expand the scope of this initial study and further demonstrate the potential of this kind of caring-through-data approach to mental health.”
The researchers are due to present their findings at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Germany later this month. Their paper, IntimaSea: Exploring Shared Stress Display in Close Relationships, is published in Proceedings of the 2023 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.
The use of health care apps to record vital data and share it with clinicians is already providing benefits to both patients and doctors, enabling patients to stay out of hospital longer and doctors to identify signs of deterioration quickly and easily. The IntimaSea app, however, offers something new – the ability to share stress data with close friends and relatives, enabling those friends and relatives to offer instant support. It’s a novel and intriguing idea, and the researchers say their small-scale study showed that participants found it beneficial. At a time when NHS mental health services are under strain, an app that makes it easy for people to let their close circle know they are feeling stressed and reach out to them for help could be a useful alternative. If successful, it could enable people to receive support before they become unwell enough to require medical treatment.