Researchers are using Google’s app to study how phones affect mental health

Researchers are using Google’s app to study how phones affect mental health

The Google Health Studies app is being used by the University of Oregon for the study.

(Photo: Google) (Photo: Google)

Google has joined hands with the University of Oregon for a study on digital wellbeing that delves into how phones affect mental health. The researchers are using Google’s Health Studies app to see how people use their devices and how it affects their well-being. According to one of the lead researchers on the project, Dr Nicholas Allen

Professor, Center for Digital Mental Health, University of Oregon, the aim of the research is to ultimately help companies design better products, and shape policy and education in the future.  

“This is a focus for our work at the Center for Digital Mental Health at the University of Oregon, where we conduct research and build tools to enhance mental health and wellbeing, especially among underserved and young people. Our goal is to provide people and their support networks with actionable feedback on their wellbeing,” Allen wrote in the blog.

“We’re expanding our research using Google Health Studies with a study focused on how smartphone use impacts wellbeing. With this research, we hope to uncover insights that help us all build a future where digital products may support us in living healthier, happier lives,” he added.  

The blog explains that researchers are using the Google Health Studies app because it can help them learn how people use their smartphones without involving the users themselves. Other studies on digital wellbeing rely on the people to track and report their usage of apps and devices. This method is considered to be “less accurate” since there is a human agency involved and people might often under or over report their usage.  

An app-based approach should help researchers “find relationships that other studies have missed”, for example, how much time was spent looking at the screen and how that affects sleep. Researchers are also hoping that since the amount of work a participant has to do for the study is reduced (no tracking or reporting involved), more people might be willing to participate and this will give them a bigger sample size and more data from “undeserved and younger populations”.  

The researchers said that they will be collecting “direct, objective measures of how people use their phones” with “passive and continuous sensing technology”, and the phones will also be able to “directly measure many of the well-established building blocks of wellbeing, such as sleep and physical activity”.  If you are a Fitbit user, you can also share some data off your smartwatch for this study.  

Google spokesperson Iz Conroy said that the Google Health Studies app uses some of the same APIs as Android’s built-in Digital Wellbeing system that tracks phone usage but “the data is collected separately under transparent research protocols”.

The number of times you unlock your phone throughout the day, and the kind of apps you use - will be the kind of data this study will collect and users will have to give “informed consent” to participate in the study. All the collected data will be “managed according to strict ethical standards and will only be used for research and to inform better products”, the blog explained, adding that it will not be used anywhere else and will not be sold.  

The study kicks off on May 27. If you are interested, you can download the Google Health Studies app from the Play Store and sign up. The study is going to track your phone usage for a period of four weeks. 

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Published on: May 24, 2022, 3:43 PM IST
Posted by: Jhinuk Sen, May 24, 2022, 3:41 PM IST