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Are you addicted to your cell phone? There's an app for that

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New app reveals just how much time cell phone users use their smart phone

Researchers from the University of Bonn have developed a new app for smart phone users. Cell phone users will be able how much time they spend on the phone, or the most frequently used apps. The relevant key data is sent to a server anonymously for the scientists to analyze. They are already using a similar technology for the early detection of depression.

The app called Menthal is compatible with Android 4.0 or newer. The app is a free for download from Google Playstore or the website Menthal.

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

This app is part of a larger research project regarding the use of cellphones. Most studies have so far relied on user self-assessments for this purpose. But that information is unreliable. "Menthal will provide reliable data for the first time," Dr. Markowetz stressed. "This app can show us in detail what someone's average cellphone consumption per day looks like."

In a study, yet to be published that includes 50, researchers examined their phone behavior using this app, over a span of six weeks. A sample of findings revealed a quarter of the students used their phones more than two hours daily. On average participants activated their phones over 80 minutes daily, during the daytime that averaged using their phones every 12 minutes. Some participants had double the findings.

Typical users only spoke on their phones for eight minutes a day and they wrote 2.8 text messages, with the main use of the phone being used for communication. Over the half the time the phone was used for message or social networking. What'sApp alone took up 15 percent, Facebook nine percent. Games accounted for 13 percent, with some subjects gaming for several hours a day.

The researcher’s main interest focused on problematic use of cellphones. Dr. Christian Montag, PhD, stated "We would like to know how much cellphone use is normal, and where 'too much' starts.” Dr. Montag explained that using a cellphone is similar to using a slot machine, which is why phones are turned on so often. He adds this potential new not yet an officially recognized disease. "And yet we know that using a cellphone can result in symptoms resembling an addiction,” he said. He explained that excessive use may result in neglecting essential daily responsibilities or one's direct social environment. "Outright withdrawal symptoms can actually occur when cellphones cannot be used,” he commented.

This app was created in the context of a broader initiative that aims at introducing computer science methods into the psychological sciences; scientists also call this new research area "psychoinformatics. In a current article titled “Psycho-Informatics: Big Data Shaping Modern Psychometrics” which appears in the journal Medical Hypotheses, the researcher s explain how psychology and psychiatry can benefit from the related possibilities. Dr. Montag explained "So for example, one could imagine using cellphone data in order to measure the severity and the progress of depression.” "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."

Depression is signaled by social withdrawal and an inability to enjoy activities, among other symptoms. The disease often progresses in an episodic fashion. "We suspect that during a depressive phase, cellphone use will change in a measurable way," explained Prof. Schläpfer. "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." A psychiatrist might thus be able to use patients' cell¬phones as a diagnostic tool and, if necessary, intervene accordingly early on. "Of course," Markowetz added, "this will only be possible in strict compliance with data privacy laws, and with patients' consent."

Dr. Markowetz in general explained compliance with strict data privacy rules is essential when analyzing such data. In their study, the participating researchers explicitly discuss the ethical aspects of data use in their work, pointing out that the doctor-patient privilege, which is painstakingly applied to the data collected, constitutes a proven method for handling information.

In the study the researchers stated “The resulting range of applications will dramatically shape the daily routines of researches and medical practitioners alike. Indeed, transferring techniques from computer science to psychiatry and psychology is about to establish psycho-informatics, an entire research direction of its own.”

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