New research conducted in part by the University of Glasgow suggests that stress data collected by wearable tech and shared between close friends could enable new forms of mutual care for mental health.
Computing scientists from Scotland and China are behind the finding, which is set to be presented at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Germany later this month.
The team set out to explore whether sharing automatically-tracked information about stress among a small group of trusted people could help them understand each other’s changing moods and offer appropriate support.
Stress is spreading, as the cost of living crisis increases economic security, work pressures increase, and the doom and gloom of climate change surmount. One in every 14 adults feel stressed at least once a day, according to CIPHR.
And this stress only increases as 37% of adults experience stress say they feel lonely as a result, according to the Mental Health Foundation and YouGov.
So could sharing live data on stress levels to a close network help people feel less alone as they battle increased levels of anxiety?
Previous studies have shown that sharing details about fertility and blood glucose levels garnered positive results for this social approach, known as ‘caring-through-data.’
To explore this approach for stress data, the team – made up of researches at The University of Glasgow, Fundan University and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology – developed a smartphone app that monitors heart rate variability data.
Called IntimaSea, the app uses wearable technology, typically a smartwatch – to track user’s heartrates to determine stress levels and displays it in a graphical interface showing waves lapping on an island shore. Users can then control if they want to share their stress data with their network with a simple click.
Each user is able to customise their profile with a different marine animal as their avatar. When users’ stress increases – measured by a fall in their heart rate variability – their avatar sinks further below the waves, allowing other users to see that they might need some support.
In response, users can offer help in the form of supportive text messages, emojis, photos, drawings, links to external content or calling up directly. They can also assess the impact of their support by tracking the depth of other users’ avatars on their mobile device’s screen.
Researchers conducted two trials of IntimaSea – an initial two-week feasibility trial among the researchers themselves followed by a four-week test with volunteers recruited from the public.
A total of 19 people split across nine groups of two to three people each participated in the trials, with the groups including romantic partners, close friends, and family members.
The collected data as well as participant interviews after the study suggested that the app had a positive impact on users’ awareness of stress – not just the stress levels of others, but also their own.
Dr Xianghua (Sharon) Ding, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Computing Science, led the research of IntimaSea. Dr Ding 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. The study suggests that 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.
With its simple graphical display, users were able to ascertain a better sense of the group’s stress levels, and to make timely interventions to help when they saw dips in mood. They were more likely to make immediate contact when they could see that the dips were occurring in real-time.
Overall, 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 collective mental health.
Dr. Ding continued: “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.