SALT LAKE CITY — A new application for Android phones could help curb the use of smartphones and even detect depression in users.
Researchers from the University of Bonn in Germany have recently developed an app, called “Menthal,” that allows users to track just how much time they spend on their devices. The goal of the program is primarily to call attention to how much people use their cellphones. But researchers also hope to find ways to use the app to measure the incidence and progression of psychological problems, such as depression.
Alexander Markowetz, junior professor for computer science at the University of Bonn, who worked on the app, said he hopes it will help people cut down on excessive phone use.
“If you would like to go on a digital diet, we will provide you with the scales," Markowetz said.
In a study of 50 students that hasn't been published yet, researchers have examined the time subjects spend on their smartphones. Dr. Christian Montag said the results "were shocking."
More than half of the participants used their phones more than two hours a day. On average, participants accessed their phones more than 80 times a day, or every 12 minutes.
Menthal tracks how much a person uses his or her phone and which programs he or she accesses most. The data are then sent anonymously to a server and stored for the researchers to analyze.
Montag said they are hoping through the study and use of the app to figure out how much phone use is "too much" and could be considered addictive. The information from the app can also be used to track the progress of depression.
Typically, depression corresponds with withdrawal from society and the inability to find happiness in usually pleasurable experiences, and cellphone use could indicate those changes.
If you would like to go on a digital diet, we will provide you with the scales.
Another study is being conducted related to this use of the app with the help of psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Schläpfer, who said he thinks the data collected could be used to measure depression in users.
"We suspect that during a depressive phase, cellphone use will change in a measurable way," Schläpfer said. "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."
Markowetz said the data could be used by a person’s mental health care provider to analyze patterns of behavior, making it easier to intervene earlier in a bout of depression.
“Of course," Markowetz said, "this will only be possible in strict compliance with data privacy laws, and with patients' consent."
Menthal is available as a free download through the Google Playstore or at www.menthal.org, but there is currently a waiting list for interested users.