Diagnosing Mental Disorders from Internet Use

By Nathaniel Counts

We live in a time when increasingly our personal information is publicly available on the internet.  This personal information includes our names and phone numbers, things we’ve written and things we’ve done, along with a good deal of information that only exists because we interact with others on the internet – thoughts that we might not have otherwise externalized, or that we certainly would not have saved so that others could read.

If all of this information is publicly available, all of this information can be gathered.  Already advertisers analyze our behaviors to better target products to us.  It is not hard to imagine a not so distant future where the government analyzes this data to determine whether we have a DSM mental disorder.  By looking at the online behaviors of those already diagnosed – the way the syndrome affects their usage patterns, the sites they visit, and how they interact with others online – it is likely that one can find statistically significant usage patterns that can distinguish individuals with a diagnosis from those without.  The available data could then be mined to identify other individuals that exhibit the usage pattern and allow for presumptive diagnosis.

In discussing the implications of this possible data mining, I will put aside the general privacy concern that this data may be used against individuals in the way that any information may be misused.  I will put aside that presumptive diagnoses could be used adversely in employment decisions or to spite public figures.  Instead, I will focus on unique uses of information relating to mental disorders.

In light of recent tragedies implicating mental health issues, a first reaction to the possibility of presumptive diagnosis is that we may end up living in the world of Minority Report, where we have reason to believe that someone has an emotional disturbance that could make them violent and we intervene to lock them up before they commit the crime (and before they even have thought about committing the crime).   There may be (and hopefully are) less insidious uses of this information though, that could take us in a direction away from dystopian nightmare.

One could imagine, instead, the government using the information for targeted mental health services.  Rather than sending police, the government could find a relatively un-intrusive way to check in on the person and offer help.  Rather than an Orwellian government, we could have a public institution acting as a concerned parent or neighbor who just wants to see if we are doing okay.  Although the idea of the government intervening in our lives in a way so particular to us as an individual may sound off-putting, there may be a way to handle it in which the individual instead feels that society cares about his or her wellbeing, and it could be a way to transition into services and eventual recovery.

All of this is only to say that there are serious implications arising from the information available on the internet, and that we might be able to preempt concerns of misuse, or even the actual misuse, if we have an alternative project that makes individuals better off and steers the government away from more ethically troubling roles.


Nathaniel Counts was a Student Fellow during the 2013-2014 academic year. At the time, he was in his third year at Harvard Law School. He was interested in the role of law and lawyers in the treatment of mental health issues, with a focus on behavioral disorders, including intersections with the criminal justice system. He was also interested in the use of a right to health care in human rights lawyering and international development. Nathaniel graduated from Johns Hopkins with a major in biology and a minor in entrepreneurship and management. Prior to law school, he studied creative writing at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. His past research focused on the federal government’s response to marijuana legalization, including recommendations for public health initiatives; he published an article on this subject in the Gonzaga Law Review in 2014.

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