Applying virtual reality therapy, internet and mobile interventions and artificial intelligence for intelligent diagnostics will change the treatment of mental disorders in the future. Professor Thomas Probst, Professor Jeremy Bailenson, Stanford University, and Professor Christian Montag, University of Ulm, explain the opportunities and risks of digital media in the journal Digital Psychology.

The relevance of digital media for treating mental disorders has increased significantly, latest since the new circumstances caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Not surprisingly, it will also change the care of mental disorders and clinical research in the upcoming years. More and more therapists will use applications such as virtual reality therapy, internet and mobile interventions and artificial intelligence for intelligent diagnostics and implement these in their practical work. The reasons are that, on the one hand, digital media support the dissemination of proven, evaluated therapy programs and, on the other hand, can provide support in the diagnostic process.

Currently research is conducted in the field of digital phenotyping, in which large amounts of data are analyzed.  Here, for example, connections between the usage of smartphones and personality parameters can be identified, as a recent publication in the journal Digital Psychology by Prof Thomas Probst and Sanja Budimir, both from the Department of Psychotherapy and Biopsychosocial Health (headed by Prof Christoph Pieh), in cooperation with several other universities, shows.

"Here, the digital data generated by smartphones in particular, but also other digital sensors, are processed. Based on the combination of the digital data and standardized, validated instruments, conclusions about the user’s emotions, cognition and behavior are drawn. This makes it possible in the future to detect mental illnesses at an early stage and to treat it in a more personalized way, in the best case to prevent serious disease progression," explains Thomas Probst, university professor of psychotherapy sciences.

Data quality and security

Naturally, collecting this data raises questions concerning data security and the quality of digital media. Controlled studies and strict guidelines are expected to solve this problem.

"The challenge is to set up a quality assurance system for the Internet and mobile tools. The aim is to ensure that only scientifically researched and thus evidence-based tools are used in healthcare that also guarantee the necessary data security. Since most apps for mental health problems are currently not scientifically researched, a scientifically supported quality assurance system should be introduced by decision makers to protect potential users," says expert Thomas Probst.

As digital media will play a more important role in the future, it is important to inform doctors, clinicians and consumers about the opportunities and risks.

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