German researchers have developed a new, free app that allows people to measure how much they use their smartphones, part of research looking into smartphone use that has already generated some surprising data.
The app will allow users to view how much time they spend on the phone or which apps are used most frequently.
The relevant key data is sent to a server anonymously for scientists to analyze; most studies have so far relied on user self-assessments, which are considered unreliable. Researchers are already using a similar technology for the early detection of depression.
This app, dubbed Menthal, will run on Android 4.0 (or newer). It is available as a free download from Google’s Playstore or menthal.org.
“If you would like to go on a digital diet, we will provide you with the scales,” joked Dr. Alexander Markowetz, junior professor for computer science at the University of Bonn.
“Menthal will provide reliable data for the first time,” Markowetz stressed. “This app can show us in detail what someone’s average cellphone consumption per day looks like.”
In an as yet unpublished study, the researchers used Menthal to examine the phone behavior of 50 students over a period of six weeks.
“Some of the results were shocking,” said researcher Dr. Christian Montag. Researchers discovered one-quarter of the study subjects used their phones for more than two hours a day.
On average, study participants activated their phones more than 80 times a day — during the day, every 12 minutes on average. For some subjects, the results were even twice as high.
Typical users only spoke on their phones for eight minutes a day, and they wrote 2.8 text messages.
And yet, the main use of phones was still for communication: over half of the time, the subjects were using Messenger or spending time on social networks.
What’s App alone took up 15 percent, Facebook nine percent. Games accounted for 13 percent, with some subjects gaming for several hours a day.
The main interest of the Bonn researchers focused on problematic use of cell phones.
“We would like to know how much cellphone use is normal, and where ‘too much’ starts,” Montag said. “And yet we know that using a cellphone can result in symptoms resembling an addiction.”
He explained that excessive use might result in neglecting essential daily responsibilities or one’s direct social environment. “Outright withdrawal symptoms can actually occur when cellphones cannot be used,” he said.
The app was created in the context of a broader initiative that aims at introducing computer science methods into the psychological sciences –-scientists also call this new research area “psychoinformatics.”
In a current article in the journal Medical Hypotheses, researchers explain how psychology and psychiatry can benefit from the related possibilities.
“So for example, one could imagine using cellphone data in order to measure the severity and the progress of depression,” said Montag. “We are in the process of conducting another study about this in cooperation with Prof. Dr. Thomas Schläpfer, a psychiatrist from the Bonn Universitäts-klinikum.”
Depression is signaled by social withdrawal and an inability to enjoy activities, among other symptoms. The disease often progresses in an episodic fashion.
“We suspect that during a depressive phase, cellphone use will change in a measurable way,” said Schläpfer. “Patients will then make fewer phone calls and venture outside less frequently — a change in behavior that smartphones can also record thanks to their built-in GPS.”
A psychiatrist might thus be able to use patients’ cellphones as a diagnostic tool and, if necessary, intervene accordingly early on.
“Of course,” Markowetz added, “this will only be possible in strict compliance with data privacy laws, and with patients’ consent.”
In their study, the participating researchers explicitly discuss the ethical aspects of data use in their work, pointing out that the doctor-patient privilege, which is painstakingly applied to the data collected, constitutes a proven method for handling information.
Source: University of Bonn