The University of Oregon is doing a study on the effect phones have on mental health, using Google’s Health Studies app. The goal of the study is to see how people are actually using their phones and how that affects their well-being. A post on the company blog written by one of the lead researchers on the project says that the aim of the research will ultimately be able to help companies design better products and even shape policy and education in the future.
According to the blog post, researchers are using the app because it can help them get a better picture of how people actually use their phones, as opposed to other studies when people are asked to track and report their own usage of apps — a method that can be less accurate than researchers might like. Researchers hope that this app-based approach will let them find relationships that other studies have missed, such as how the amount of time you spend looking at a screen actually affects your sleep. They also hope that reducing the amount of work participants will have to do will let them attract a larger group of people. In addition to getting a bigger sample size, this could help them get data from underserved and younger populations.
The researchers say they’ll collect “direct, objective measures of how people use their phones” with “passive and continuous sensing technology.” They also say that your phone will be able to “directly measure many of the well-established building blocks of wellbeing, such as sleep and physical activity.” If you have a Fitbit, you can also choose to share some data from it as well. According to Google spokesperson Iz Conroy, the system uses “some of the same APIs as” Android’s built-in Digital Wellbeing system that tracks how you use your phone, but the “data is collected separately under transparent research protocols.” Conroy used the number of times you unlock your phone and the categories of apps you use as examples of what kind of data the study will collect.
The post says users will have to give “informed consent” to participate and that the data “will be managed according to strict ethical standards and will only be used for research and to inform better products.” It explicitly says that the data “will never be sold or used for advertising.”
The Health Studies app was introduced in December 2020 with a study into respiratory illnesses. People can use the app to sign up as participants in studies, where it’ll collect their data and aggregate it so researchers can see trends for demographics but not an individual’s personal info. If you’re interested in contributing to the digital well-being study, you can download the app from the Play Store and sign up to participate in the study when it launches on Friday, May 27th. The study will track your phone usage and health patterns for four weeks.