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Editorial: Your App, Yourself; Smartphones Will Watch Over You

When the developer of a new smartphone application says it has aspects that are “a bit creepy,’’ we sit up and take notice.

And so we are impressed, but naturally wary, about StudentLife, a smartphone application under development by Dartmouth professor Andrew Campbell and researchers including psychiatrists and wellness experts. The app turns your cellphone, a fairly powerful computer, into your Mom, Life Coach, Fitness Trainer, Trusted Friend, Guardian Angel and Nudge.

It does this by harnessing the smartphone in ways that 20-year-olds likely consider routine, but might surprise those who are much older. According to staff writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling, Campbell’s app uses the smartphone to constantly watch over you — and that’s the “bit creepy” part.

“SmartLife turns your smartphone into a continuous monitoring system,’’ Hongoltz-Hetling reported. Like the Santa of song, it knows when you are sleeping, and likewise awake. The microphone notes how often you have conversations, and the GPS knows when you’ve been to the library, the gym or the dining hall.

StudentLife can assess, compared to healthy norms, whether the user might be sleeping too much, or too little, isolating from friends or not working out. All of these are common issues for college students, who face the classic stresses of moving to a new place, having the freedom they craved but may not be ready for, and managing a heavy workload subject to dangerous bouts of procrastination. Throw in loneliness, a bad roommate, a romantic breakup, late-night hours, fast food and temptations both legal and illegal, and personal problems can ensue.

StudentLife produces, in a sense, a mental health selfie. Its data is intended for the user, who may be prompted to do things such as get more sleep or talk with a friend. But will smartphone intervention reduce full-blown depression? Only larger studies will show for sure.

Campbell has already used the app to help individuals, when a 48-student study group allowed their data to be shared with the developers. He deduced that two students who were skipping his classes weren’t slackers — they seemed to be in a college slump, with decreasing social interaction and a decline in other healthy behaviors. Instead of failing them, he allowed them to finish their work over the summer, and they did well.

That is an uplifting narrative, but privacy is the issue that won’t go away. Campbell says security is being built into the application from the start, but it’s hard not to be uneasy when hospitals, major retailers and government agencies have suffered significant data breaches. And what will prosecutors and defense lawyers make of such data? How much of a e-trail do you want to create?

In the end, people are left to juggle the benefits and downsides of another powerful technology. There is, as far as we know, no app for that: They must assess rewards and risks as best they can. And they can, in times of trouble, turn to humans for help — something that has been reasonably effective for millennia.