January 27, 2014
New App Tracks Total Phone Usage, Data Could Be Used To Track Addiction
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Researchers from the University of Bonn in Germany have a released a new app that can track the wholesale use of your cell phone – from time spent on calls to app usage to texting activities.
App users can agree to let their usage data be sent anonymously back to the German scientists, who are using the information to track the digital habits of the typical person. The app, called Menthal, is currently available in the Google Play store.
"If you would like to go on a digital diet, we will provide you with the scales," said Alexander Markowetz, junior professor for computer science at the University of Bonn and co-author of a new report on the app-based study in the journal Medical Hypotheses.
The study team said their approach to collecting data on cell phone usage is more reliable than previous efforts, which have largely relied on study participants reporting their usage.
"Menthal will provide reliable data for the first time," Markowetz said. "This app can show us in detail what someone's average cell phone consumption per day looks like."
In their research, the German team used Menthal to look at the phone behavior of 50 students over the course of six weeks.
"Some of the results were shocking," said report co-author Christian Montag, a psychologist at the University of Bonn.
The researchers discovered around 25 percent of participants used their phones for over two hours a day. Typical participants used their phones over 80 times a day, every 12 minutes on average during waking hours. For some participants, the results were twice as high.
Typical users only chatted on their phones for eight minutes a day and wrote 2.8 text messages. However, the predominant use of phones was still for communication: over half of the time, the participants were using a messenger app or passing time on social networks. The messaging app WhatsApp alone took up 15 percent, Facebook 9 percent. Games included 13 percent, with some subjects gaming for multiple hours a day.
The German team said they wanted to focus on the problematic use of cell phones.
"We would like to know how much cell phone use is normal, and where 'too much' starts," Montag explained. “We know that using a cell phone can result in symptoms resembling an addiction.”
He compared using a cell phone to using a slot machine and added that this new compulsion could become an officially recognized disease. Montag suggested too much use might cause someone to neglect daily duties or one's social health.
"Outright withdrawal symptoms can actually occur when cellphones cannot be used,” he said.
The app was designed in the broader context of introducing computer science techniques into the psychological sciences – a burgeoning research area "psychoinformatics." In the team’s report, they discuss how psychology and psychiatry can gain from the mutual relationship.
"So for example, one could imagine using cell phone data in order to measure the severity and the progress of depression," Montag said. "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."
"We suspect that during a depressive phase, cell phone use will change in a measurable way," Schläpfer said. "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."