Expanding research on digital wellbeing
Editor’s note: Dr. Nicholas Allen is a professor of psychology, the director of the Center for Digital Mental Health at the University of Oregon and a lead researcher for the latest study hosted on Google Health Studies.
In Australia, where I’m from, any topic so contentious that it interrupts whatever a group is doing and prompts loud debate is called a “BBQ stopper.” Discussing whether digital technology is good or bad for wellbeing and mental health is a classic BBQ stopper. And this issue has become even more urgent during the COVID-19 pandemic as so many people have turned to digital technology to maintain some semblance of their lifestyle.
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.
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.
Weighing benefits and risks
With today’s smartphones, social media and bottomless streams of content, many are quick to condemn technology based on their conviction that these products must be bad for mental health and wellbeing. But focusing only on these potentially harmful effects doesn't tell the full story. Nor does it help us reap the full benefits these tools have to offer, while also managing their risks.
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. Answering these questions is necessary so that the research community and technology industry can pursue evidence-based product design, education and policy aimed at maximizing benefits and minimizing risks.
The need for new research
Not only do we need new research that focuses on both the benefits and risks of technology, we also need to rethink what we ask people, who we include in this research and how we work together to use the findings.
Most scientific research on digital wellbeing has relied on self-reported questionnaires, which are heavily subjective. Could you say how many hours or minutes you used your phone yesterday without checking your screen time metrics? Probably not!
Existing studies also typically have small or unrepresentative samples. To make sure research and potential solutions support everyone, it’s critical for new research methodologies to incorporate data from people historically underrepresented in health research.
Finally, many studies might miss certain patterns of behavior that reveal complex relationships between device use and wellbeing — like the relationship between screen time and sleep.
Understanding these relationships can inform insights and guidelines for developers and people to maximize wellbeing and minimize risks. Scientists around the globe are calling for greater transparency and collaboration between the technology sector and independent scientists to solve these problems and provide the answers we need.
Studying the impact of technology, with technology
We believe that technology can help bridge many of these gaps and improve research on digital wellbeing. That’s why the Center for Digital Mental Health at the University of Oregon is partnering with Google and Fitbit to launch this landmark study.
We’ll recruit a large representative sample and collect direct, objective measures of how people use their phones, with their informed consent. We’ll use passive and continuous sensing technology to do this, rather than relying only on self reports. The study will also use participants’ phones to directly measure many of the well-established building blocks of wellbeing, such as sleep and physical activity.
How to participate
The study takes four weeks to complete and is open to adults based in the U.S. who use an Android phone and can complete daily activities without assistance. Participants will also have the option to add relevant Fitbit data, including step count and physical activity.1 The data collected will be managed according to strict ethical standards and will only be used for research and to inform better products. The data will never be sold or used for advertising.
We hope you’ll join this important study so we can build a healthier digital future together for everyone. Download Google Health Studies, and sign up for the study starting Friday, May 27.