Researchers Examine Student Self-Tracking for Mental Wellness

Researchers Examine Student Self-Tracking for Mental Wellness

Alyson Powell
May 8, 2017
Finals are over and tassels are turned to the relief of many Georgia Tech students across campus. Jgenisius Harris is one of them. After one year at Spelman College and three years at Tech, she graduated on Saturday with a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. It wasn’t an easy road, though.

“When I transferred from Spelman, I experienced an increase in stress due to having to handle a higher workload. Balancing my leisure life was challenging as well,” she explained.

Harris, right up until graduation, combated stress by exercising and talking to friends, campus mentors and counselors. “We met once a week just to talk about various things related to stress or just life in general.”

Facing stress and academic pressures, the emotional health of college students is at an all-time low. In a recent national survey of college students, 85% of students reported feeling overwhelmed by demands, while nearly 48% reported feeling hopeless.

Researchers from Georgia Tech (Lauren Wilcox, assistant professor in Interactive Computing, and Christina Kelley, MS student) and Microsoft Research (Bongshin Lee, Senior Researcher) are publishing findings this week from two studies to better understand methods for stress management and mental wellness in students.

“Our overall goal is to design, develop and evaluate the effectiveness of human-centered computing technology that helps people understand which behaviors can promote mental wellness, and which ones might undermine mental wellness,” said Wilcox.

The first study, with Georgia Tech and Emory University mental health professionals who work directly with students, identified the ways that self-tracking can be beneficial or harmful. It also looked at leveraging active and passive sensing to support student mental wellness. One of the big takeaways from the clinicians: engaging with data is important.

“We need to design systems that attempt to measure aspects of mental wellness and intervene. It’s also important to make that data transparent to people somehow.”

The second, larger study is an online survey of nearly 300 students from 58 colleges and universities. Wilcox and her team examined six factors that experts in the first study found most useful – exercise, sleep quality, class attendance, academic workload, bedtime, and depression. The survey also asked students questions about their self-tracking practices and preference for sharing data. Most of the respondents, 90-percent, reported tracking one or more things, with number of steps, workouts, weight, sleep, and eating habits being the most common.

A noteworthy finding: study participants who had previously been diagnosed with a mental illness are significantly more likely to also have a chronic or long-term illness like diabetes or high blood pressure. “Designing systems that take that into account is important,” said Wilcox.

One concern is negative or disordered tracking – obsessively tracking things like calorie count or physical activity, which can exacerbate eating disorders. Another challenge is the use of physical activity data as a proxy for mental wellness.

“People are drawing their own conclusions between what’s measurable and what the actual parallel is for their wellness,” the assistant professor says.

Wilcox says this isn’t surprising, though, since there are more tools for monitoring behavior than there are for tracking mental and emotional well-being.

These studies, part of Georgia Tech’s CampusLife project, are providing important insight for those who design and develop personal informatics systems and mobile health technology for mental wellness. The research, Self-tracking for Mental Wellness: Understanding Expert Perspectives and Student Experiences, is being presented today at the Association for Computing Machinery’s 2017 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2017), in Denver, Colorado.

MORE: Georgia Tech @ CHI 2017

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