Phone app colour codes messages to 'help manage stress'

A woman holding her head Researchers say it is important for people to take action not to be stressed

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A new mobile phone app will prepare users for receiving good or bad news on their phones, say researchers.

Made by a team from the University of Portsmouth's School of Computing, the app distinguishes good messages from bad and neutral ones, and colour codes them accordingly.

Users may choose not to open negative messages if they are already having a stressful day.

But some experts think that ignoring such messages may also be stressful.

For now, the app has been tested on phones running Android OS, and the results of the study will be presented at the 16th International Conference on Knowledge-Based and Intelligent Information and Engineering Systems in Spain in September.

The app automatically colour codes incoming messages, making them green for positive, red for negative and blue for neutral.

This way, a user can see before opening a message whether it is likely to be worrying or not.

Start Quote

Stress is often made worse by the anticipation of an unpleasant event and actually dissipated once you tackle the problem directly”

End Quote Pamela Briggs British Psychological Society

"The application works by learning from past messages how the user perceives the content as being positive, negative or objective," lead researcher Dr Mohamed Gaber told BBC News.

"The ultimate objective… is to make the user aware of the negative contents they receive so they are able to manage their stress in the best possible way.

"For example, if most of what is received from social media websites by a user on a particular day was negative, it is important that the user attempts to take an action in order to not get stressed, especially if this may affect the individual's performance at work and/or their behaviour at home."

Anticipation matters

The scientist added that the app comes "pre-trained", but users are able to self-label any incoming text message to personalise it - as some messages may be perceived in a different way by different users.

But Pamela Briggs, a psychologist from the British Psychological Society, thinks the main question is whether or not a user can trust that the app will indeed interpret the information correctly.

"Researchers are increasingly able to use various kinds of linguistic analysis to determine message content, and so it is reasonable to assume that some kind of colour coding is viable in this context," Dr Briggs told BBC News.

"But the bigger question is whether or not such an app will genuinely let us manage stress more effectively.

App screenshot The app uses red for upsetting or worrying messages, green for good ones, and blue for neutral

"Imagine that you get a 'bad' message from a boss, husband or friend - the researchers suggest that you might want to put this to one side, to open at a more appropriate moment, but stress is often made worse by the anticipation of an unpleasant event and actually dissipated once you tackle the problem directly.

"The app seems to do the job of a traditional mail envelope - this message is a tax bill, that message is a card from a friend - but taken to an electronic extreme.

"What if we decide to delete the 'bad' message, rather than to read it - and then spend several days worrying about it. I'd like to see some behavioural research on the stress claims made by the authors, before we can assume that it might make our lives easier."

Other research

The scientists say they were inspired by previous research in the area, in particular by a system called SentiCorr, developed by a team from the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

This is a system "for automated sentiment analysis on multilingual user generated content from various social media and e-mails", as described in the research paper.

It also uses colour coding for positive, negative or neutral content.

"Our system is aimed at helping individual users become more aware of the sentiment in their correspondence," states the paper.

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