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A Digital Study Through Google’s App Examines The Impact Of Phone On Mental Health

by Victoria Marian Belmis / May 24, 2022 11:46 AM EDT
Google Health Studies App

Utilizing Google's Health Studies app, The University of Oregon is conducting a study on the effect phones have on mental health. The goal of the study is to observe how people are using their smartphones and how that impacts their well-being. 

"Technological developments throughout history have had both benefits and risks. We urgently need high-quality research to identify which use patterns are associated with benefits versus risks, and who is likely to experience harmful versus beneficial outcomes," says a post on the company's blog by one of the project's leading researchers.

READ: Google's New Skin Tone Research Can Improve Search Result Inclusivity

Researchers are particularly using the app because it can help them get a better picture of how people actually use their phones by collecting "direct, objective measures". This is a contrast to different studies where people are asked to track and report their own usage of apps (a less accurate method for researchers). They hope that this app-based approach will let them find relationships that other studies have missed, such as how the amount of time spent looking at a screen can actually affect sleep. 

Using "passive and continuous sensing technology", they also hope to reduce the amount of work that participants will have to do, which in turn, may let them attract a larger group of people. This could potentially help them obtain data from underserved and younger populations.

 

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 use 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, however, the "data is collected separately under transparent research protocols." Conroy used the number of times a phone is unlocked and the categories of apps used as examples of what kind of data the study will collect.

READ: Google And Samsung Teamed Up To Help Users Sync Data Between Fitness Apps

Users will have to give "informed consent" to participate and the data "will be managed according to strict ethical standards and will only be used for research and to inform better products." The post explicitly says that the data "will never be sold or used for advertising."

Google's Health Studies app was first introduced in December 2020 alongside a study into respiratory illnesses. Individuals can use the app to sign up as participants in studies, where it'll collect and aggregate their data so researchers can only see trends for demographics and not an individual's personal info. 

If you're interested in contributing to the digital well-being study, the app is downloadable from the Play Store and you can sign up to participate in the study when it launches on May 27th. The study will be tracking your phone usage and health patterns for up to four weeks.

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