Stanford Project Studies Phone Use, Aims to Identify Patterns

Starting three years ago, Stanford University researchers began the Human Screenome Project to create a digital map with detailed information about how people use their phones. Stanford School of Medicine professor of pediatrics Thomas Robinson, one of the lead researchers on the project, is focused on the portion of the project on adolescents. Although the iPhone first debuted over ten years ago, said the researchers, we have very little information about how such screens impact this cohort’s well-being.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, according to Robinson, “we are multitasking, jumping between apps, websites and videos with incredible speed,” which makes context key to “how we interpret media and how it affects our moods.”

The study involves “installing software on participants’ phones and taking screenshots of their usage every five seconds … [a] kind of granular detail has been rare in past studies on screen time, which relied on self-reporting or broad categories.” The Project has thus far collected 30+ million screenshots from 600+ people.

The Project aims to “amass enough data to be able to then identify behavioral patterns, followed by experiments that could inform public policy as well as health and social outcomes.” Robinson pointed out that, “if media-consumption patterns associated with alcohol or tobacco use are established, researchers could run experiments where they limit exposure to such content on their smartphones to see how that affects their offline behavior.”

In addition to Stanford, the project has also received funding from Penn State, and is “seeking additional funding from foundations [and] the National Institute of Health.” With schools closed due to the coronavirus, teens are likely to spend more time on screens, for online learning and socialization.

A look at past academic research highlights the need for the Human Screenome Project’s more detailed analysis. Stanford University Social Media Lab founder Jeff Hancock reviewed 226 studies from the past 12 years on “how social media exposure affects psychological well-being, including anxiety, depression and loneliness … [and] found almost no systematic relationship between the two.” But, said Hancock, 77 percent of the studies relied on self-reported answers. Robinson noted that, “self-reporting can lead to notoriously low-quality data because people’s memories tend to be poor.”

To prove that, he “asked college students to self-report their phone use for a day, then compared those answers to their actual use based on Apple’s Screen Time app records,” and found that “the self-reported answers were off by an average of 2.2 hours” and lacked details. “Even if I know someone is spending four hours on a screen that doesn’t tell me much,” said Robinson. “They could be watching pornography, learning a new skill, or doing a whole bunch of other things.”

In response to privacy concerns raised by other academics about the project, Robinson said that, “the project’s privacy policy has undergone rigorous reviews by multiple ethics committees and has in some cases required consent forms from parents and teens.” “For all of its flaws, it gives us a unique window into people’s emotions, thoughts and motivations,” said Washington State University professor of psychology Chris Barry.