Collecting and analyzing data about how students use the Internet could lead to advances in mental health. But some worry that using technology in this manner could erode privacy.
This conflict is the subject of a new article by researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology titled “Monitoring Student Internet Patterns: Big Brother or Promoting Mental Health?” The article will be published next month in the Journal of Technology in Human Services.
The article examines the controversy surrounding a 2012 study conducted at Missouri S&T, which showed students who tested for symptoms of depression use the Internet differently than their counterparts. Researchers believe the findings could be used in the human services field to assess and promote mental health. Although conducted consistent with all U.S. National Institute of Health ethical guidelines for protecting human research participants, this study has raised concerns that the technology could be used by governments or other groups to “monitor” people without their awareness, similar to the role played by Big Brother in George Orwell’s famous novel, 1984.
In the article, Dr. Frances Haemmerlie Montgomery, Curators’ Teaching Professor of psychology at Missouri S&T, writes that the “pervasiveness of the Internet in many peoples’ lives” means the personal monitoring aspect of 1984 is already a reality. She and her co-authors note that exploring the use of technology to assess mental health is important and that “further research could uncover a whole new source of information for assessing mental health problems.” These include possible use of screening techniques and the development of ways to prevent the exacerbation of such problems and/or promote better mental health.
The authors also make the case that research universities are the ideal setting for this type of research to be conducted in an ethical manner. Such research on the use of technology in mental health could not only benefit many individuals in society but it could also be used by policymakers to develop guidelines for the appropriate use of new technologies in the real world, write Montgomery and her co-authors.
Co-authors of the article are Dr. Sriram Chellappan, assistant professor of computer science; Raghavendra Kotikalapudi, who received his master of science degree in computer science from Missouri S&T in 2011; Dr. Donald C. Wunsch, the M.K. Finley Missouri Distinguished Professor of Computer Engineering; and Karl F. Lutzen, information security officer for Missouri S&T’s information technology department.