With a forthcoming software update, Apple devices will be able to track your mental health. But is this really a good thing?
New update, new functionality
When Apple’s latest software updates drop this month, users will have access to mental health and wellness features unlike anything currently available in a smartphone. With the Apple Watch and iOS health app, Apple has long striven to cement itself in the healthcare tech space.
Yet the new features go beyond the standard heart rate, sleep, calorie, and fitness trackers that have become universal in smart tech. A new mood tracker (dubbed “State of Mind”) will ask users to rate how they feel both in random moments (from unpleasant to pleasant) and daily.
Mental health questionnaires will provide users with a preliminary screening for depression (using the PHQ-9 screening tool) and anxiety (using the GAD-7 screening tool) that can alert them to their risk levels and connect them to licensed professionals in their area.
Finally, Apple is introducing a journaling app that can collect user data from photos, texts, music/gaming/TV history, location, fitness, etc. to give users a holistic picture of each day.
This means Apple is in the position to arrive at unique insights about a user’s life. What they’re proposing in iOS 17 is to essentially hold a mirror up to their users, allowing them to see their lives through their interactions with technology.
Tracking your mental state
The State of Mind tool is simple to use. When opening the Health App after updating to iOS 17, the user is prompted to start tracking my mental state. You can choose to log a state at a specific time (for example, how do you feel at 2:30 p.m. today?), or to log my mental state for the day.
The sliding scale of mental states is visually appealing. The screen turns blue when the user slides to the “unpleasant” options and orange when you slide to the “pleasant” options. After settling on a mental state, users are prompted to give some context.
First, there’s a predetermined list of emotions that might describe the user’s mental state (for example, “anxious,” “content,” “happy,” “excited”), and then a list of factors that might be contributing to that mental state (such as “work,” “friends,” “current events”). Here users can write in something specific that will be included in the log.
If they use it daily, users can access a calendar of daily mental states and a graph that visualizes the cycle of states over a given week, month, or year. Clicking on any data point will pull up the details of that day, any momentary moods the user logged in, and the context the user provided.
Interface with other health metrics
The user interface functions similarly to the other health metrics Apple already logs. It is a minimalist design that offers easily digestible data. Users can access mental state metrics on the home screen of the app with their other health data.
Instead of just measuring physical fitness (tracking workouts, counting calories), the iPhone and Apple Watch can be holistic measures of the user as a person. They can define not only the user’s active life but also their mental life. You can scroll through an Apple-branded definition of who you are. Eventually, users can effectively become the Apple ideal version of themselves.
On the surface, it might be helpful to see, for example, how users rate days more highly when they are active and sleep enough (although it doesn’t take AI to know that). However, there’s a limit to what data can tell us, based on the measurements we use and our biases as interpreters.
It will be interesting to learn how the average Apple user will interpret this data, and whether they will start shaping their lives to arrive at graphs that look desirable.
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A “looping effect”
The late philosopher Ian Hacking describes a looping effect between people and the labels they’re given. Looping effects are prominent in the algorithm-driven software we use. Researchers have found people’s TikTok feeds become reflections of their self-concept as they begin to trust the insights AI draws from the feedback they’ve given.
However, TikTok algorithms are not blank slates for self-concept creation. They’re designed to put people into marketing categories to sell them to advertisers.
In an interview with Time, Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “Apple’s largest contribution to mankind will be in improving people’s health and wellbeing.”
Apple is a company of ideals. Compared to traditional computer marketing, which highlights performance specs, Apple pioneered selling computers by advertising who a user can be with a Mac. This was the purpose behind their “Think Different” campaign.
Even when Apple does discuss technical details of computer performance, its use of flashy visuals and vague language makes it difficult to accurately assess its products against competitors.
The messaging is clear: An Apple user is not just someone who owns a piece of tech, but someone who is cool, creative, colorful, and individualistic. Now they can be healthy and well-adjusted, too. But corporate mandates can be hollow because, at their core, they exist to increase profits. Apple’s success as a company comes from its ability to own the consumer.
With an airtight ecosystem, users become dependent on Apple for all their digital needs. By integrating health into that ecosystem, those users may be dependent on Apple for their well-being too. It’s unclear what happens when people incorporate their Apple self into their self-concept, but it might make them better consumers and more productive employees. Ultimately, this is the goal of corporate mental health.
Just as spa days and five-minute yoga breaks can only go so far in improving mental health, it’s not clear that iOS 17 is the medical revolution Apple hopes it will be.
What are your thoughts on Apple tracking your mental health? Will you be using this function? Tell us more in the comments.