Taylor Swift may be happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time, but so is your average college student. And researchers from Dartmouth University in Hanover, N.H., have figured out a way to measure how this affects their academic performance via an Android app.

The app is called StudentLife, and researchers developed it to see how students' levels of happiness, stress, depression, and loneliness impacts their academic peformance. "The StudentLife app is able to continuously make mental health assessment 24/7, opening the way for a new form of assessment," said Andrew Campbell, lead study author and computer science professor at Dartmouth, in a press release. "This is a very important and exciting breakthrough."

Campbell and his team had 48 students use StudentLife during their 10-week term. The app was set up to automatically measure certain behaviors, including sleep duration, physical activity, the number and duration of conversations the students had each day, as well as how good students felt about themselves. Additionally, StudentLife assessed students’ mental health and their academic performance (grades plus GPA). Students were also given pre- and post-mental health surveys as a way for researchers to evaluate their findings. There was also an algorithm or two involved, because science.

And the results showed the “passive and automatic sensor data from the Android phones significantly correlated with the students’ mental health and their academic performance over the term,” Campbell said. In layman’s terms, the app was pretty good at discerning a student's behavior, as well as their GPA, which is as cool as it is (kind-of) creepy. For instance, the app found the more social a student was, the less depressed they felt. Physically active students felt less lonely, whereas student's with a higher GPA didn't visit the gym as often.

“Much of the stress and strain of student life remains hidden,” Campbell said. “In reality, faculty, student deans, [and] clinicians know little about their students in and outside of the classroom. Students might know about their own circumstances and patterns but know little about classmates. To shine a light on student life, we developed the first of a kind smartphone app and sensing system to automatically infer human behavior.”

Of course, as researchers conceded, this app raises major privacy concerns. Yet, with proper protection, the app can provide continuous evaluation to anyone using it, not just students, as opposed to individuals waiting for severe-enough symptoms to merit a trip to the doctor. Future, real-time feedback could change the way college students and their higher educators regard and treat mental health on campus, and everywhere else.

Researchers would like to revisit the app to make it so it provides feedback and intervention to struggling students. This way, they can balance their work and social lives for a better college experience. “We purposely provided students with no feedback in this first study because we didn’t want to use StudentLife as a behavioral change tool. We simply wanted to ‘record’ their time on campus,” Campbell said. “Providing feedback and intervention is the next step. For example, we might inform students of risky behavior, such as partying too much, poor levels of sleep for peak academic performance, poor eating habits, or being too socially isolated.”

Source: Wang R, Chen F, Chen Z, Li T, Harari G, et al. StudentLife: Assessing Mental Health, Academic Performance and Behavioral Trends of College Students using Smartphones. At The 2014 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing.