By Abigail Ng
When final-year student Trisha Lim, 23, stopped using Telegram for nine hours, her friends were alarmed.
Nine hours is a short time, but it was a departure from her usual behaviour. The Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information student usually checks the app once an hour – at least.
“One of my friends started asking other people if I was okay,” she said.
Another asked her on Facebook if she was all right.
Her friends’ concern may not be irrational, researchers point out. Experts believe changes in patterns of posts and clicks can hold clues to the user’s mental or physical health.
“Our interactions with the digital world could unlock secrets of disease,” Dr Sachin H. Jain, who
studies Twitter posts for signs of sleep problems, said to The New
Lim’s coursemate, 22-year-old Rachel Lim, agrees. She will call friends who “go off the radar for too long” as she believes that such online indicators could even be more telling than a person’s real-life behaviour or actions.
“Cryptic posts, sad quotes or black-and-white pictures on social media are tell-tale signs,” she said, adding: “I think many people in this era feel safer expressing themselves behind screens.”
In Singapore, surveys show 77 per cent of the population actively use social media, with the average time spent on devices being close to 13 hours. American company Mindstrong Health monitors smartphone habits down to the taps and clicks, watching for changes in mood and
memory associated with depression.
As the start-up’s co-founder Dr Thomas Insel says: “We are building digital smoke alarms for people with mental illness.”
But some remain sceptical about the connection, attributing changes in social media behaviour to simple reasons such as low battery or the lack of an Internet connection.
Final-year student Melissa Ong, from the School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, was on a flight to Sweden that arrived two hours late.
When she landed, she found her phone filled with worried messages from her exchange companions.
“I had no Internet access at the time and was unable to inform them of the flight delay,” she said.
She added: “Still, I guess if it really were a life-or-death situation, their concern could make a difference.”