How do smartphones affect your mental health? New study from Google looks for answers

The research, conducted by the Center for Digital Mental Health at the University of Oregon, aims to provide people with ‘actionable feedback on their wellbeing’. — Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Researchers at the University of Oregon are partnering with Google to study the impact of smartphone use on mental health.

In a blog post, lead researcher Dr Nicholas Allen said the subject has proved to be a controversial one and has become more pronounced during the Covid-19 pandemic, “as so many people have turned to digital technology to maintain some semblance of their lifestyle.”

The research, conducted by the Center for Digital Mental Health at the University of Oregon, aims to provide people with “actionable feedback on their wellbeing”, with a particular focus on the needs of young people and historically underserved populations, Allen wrote.

“With today’s smartphones, social media and bottomless streams of content, many are quick to condemn technology based on their conviction that these products must be bad for mental health and wellbeing,” Allen said. “But focusing only on these potentially harmful effects doesn’t tell the full story. Nor does it help us reap the full benefits these tools have to offer, while also managing their risks.”

Researchers are recruiting users for the study, Allen said. Researchers plan to collect “direct, objective measures” of participants’ behaviour through the use of technology that senses how they’re using their Android smartphones, instead of relying on self-reported information like questionnaires, the post said.

Researchers will also use subjects’ phones to monitor other markers of their well-being, such as how much sleep or physical activity they get, according to the blog post.

They hope that their research will differ from previous studies that might have had smaller sample sizes or that missed certain patterns of behavior, Allen wrote. For example, past studies may not have included data from people “historically underrepresented in health research”, or might not have noticed the “complex relationships” between device use and health, “like the relationship between screen time and sleep”, the blog post said.

“Understanding these relationships can inform insights and guidelines for developers and people to maximise wellbeing and minimise risks,” Allen said. “Scientists around the globe are calling for greater transparency and collaboration between the technology sector and independent scientists to solve these problems and provide the answers we need.”

Anyone interested in participating can sign up starting May 27 through the Google Health Studies app. The study is open to any adult in the US who uses an Android phone and “can complete daily activities without assistance”, the post said.

Participants can also opt to have relevant Fitbit data, such as their step count or physical activity levels, included in the study. Researchers will collect data on participants for four weeks, and the information will “only be used for research and to inform better products”, the blog post said.

“We hope you’ll join this important study so we can build a healthier digital future together for everyone,” Allen wrote. – The Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service

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