A new app measures smartphone addiction

App monitors mobile phone addiction

A new free Android app measures users’ mobile phone use and detects signs of addiction.

The app, created jointly by computer researchers and psychologists from the German University of Bonn, monitors how much time a user spends on his or her mobile phone and which apps he or she uses. The data are subsequently anonymously sent to the university’s server for the researchers to analyse.

"If you would like to go on a digital diet, we will provide you with the scales," joked Alexander Markowetz, junior professor of computer science at the University of Bonn.

Dubbed Menthal, the Android app is a part of a long-term project trying to assess the role of mobile phones in individuals' lives. Previously, researchers had to rely on unreliable self-assessment of individual users.

"Menthal will provide reliable data for the first time," Markowetz said. "This app can show us in detail what someone's average mobile phone consumption per day looks like."

In one study, the researchers used Menthal to examine phone behaviour of 50 students over a period of six weeks. "Some of the results were shocking," said Christian Montag, an associated professor of Psychology at the University of Bonn. About one-quarter of the studied subjects used their phones for more than two hours a day. On average, study participants activated their phones more than 80 times a day, about every 12 minutes. For some subjects, the results were even twice as high.

Although the subjects only used their phones to make calls for about eight minutes a day and sent less than three text messages, they spent hours using other applications. The most used app was WhatsApp, taking up about 15 per cent of the daily smartphone-time of each user, followed by games with 13 per cent and Facebook with 9 per cent.

"We would like to know how much mobile phone use is normal, and where 'too much' starts," Montag explained. Although not yet recognised as an official addiction, researchers have evidence that excessive use of smartphones could result in addiction-like symptoms, including neglects of everyday responsibilities or withdrawal from natural social environment.

Previously, the team has used a similar app to detect signs of depression. Researchers believe that early signs of depression could be spotted using smartphone data. A user sinking into depression would probably start making less calls than previously and stay home more often – something that could be detected thanks to a GPS receiver integrated into each smartphone.

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