Wearable Sensor Could Point To Anxiety, Depression In Kids

By Beth Leipholtz 03/06/19

New tech may help children better identify their own feelings.

kid visiting the doctor for a wearable sensor

Whether or not a child suffers from an internalizing disorder like depression or anxiety may soon be identifiable through a wearable sensor, new research indicates.  

According to PsyPost, a recent study put the sensors to the test. The study involved 63 children ages 3 to 8, both with and without internalizing disorders. The children wore a motion sensor which tracked their movement, and a machine learning algorithm then analyzed those movements. 

Study author Ellen W. McGinnis, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Vermont Medical Center, says children struggle to identify their own feelings, so the sensor may help do so. 

“Young children who suffer from anxiety and depression often have a lot of difficulty understanding and communicating their suffering—and for parents, it’s really difficult to read inner emotions of someone who doesn’t even understand themselves,” she said.  

“This is also a large problem, with up to 1 in 5 children experiencing an internalizing disorder during childhood, that can lead to increased risk for serious health problems like chronic anxiety and depression, substance abuse, and suicide, later in life if left untreated,” added study co-author Ryan S. McGinnis, an assistant professor at the University of Vermont. 

During the study, children were taken into a “dimly lit” room. A research assistant then made statements meant to increase the children’s anticipation. The statements included things like, “I have something to show you,” and, “Let’s be quiet so it doesn’t wake up.”

The back of the room housed a covered terrarium. With the children in the room, the research assistant then pulled out a fake snake, assuring the children the assistant was allowed to play with the reptile. 

This exercise and the sensors led researchers to determine that the children in the study with disorders like anxiety and depression were more apt to turn away before the snake was taken out. The algorithm from the machine did pick up on some variations between children with internalizing disorders versus those without—in fact, it was 81% accurate. 

“Feasible objective screening of child anxiety and depression in young children is possible using wearable technology and is proving to be very sensitive—meaning we can find those previously overlooked kids and connect them to the services they need,” Ellen McGinnis told PsyPost.

“Hopefully people will start to see technologies like these being deployed during their children’s pediatric well visits in the coming years,” Ryan McGinnis added.

Though the results are promising, as with most small studies, researchers say a larger sample is needed to prove their results further.

“A big caveat is that, although our results are intriguing and promising, we need to replicate them in a much larger, more diverse sample," Ellen McGinnis told PsyPost. "In so doing, we’d like to partner with pediatricians to ensure that the resulting technology can easily fit within the workflow of a standard pediatric well visit."

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at www.lifetobecontinued.com, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.