Smartphones take internet access directly into our pockets, meaning it is never absent, scattering our attention, distracting us from important tasks and, say scientists at Bonn University, posing a threat to our mental health.
Computer scientists and psychologists at the university got together under the leadership of Alexander Markowetz to create the app to measure how people actually use their smartphones.
It is free to download under www.menthal.org – and gives users a simple breakdown of how much time they are spending on their smartphones, either talking, dealing with text messages or surfing online.
In return, the app sends the data to the researchers so they can compile it and figure out what is happening. They are explicit that the only data they collect is of type and duration of smartphone use – nothing more detailed than that.
"Self-reporting levels of use simply doesn't work. No-one can remember how much time they spend in a day on whatever app they may have on their phone. No-one has an overview," Markowetz told The Local.
But he said the app compiles an “M-score” of cognitive load – it measures how much distraction is being created by the smartphone over a period of time.
"This can be extremely helpful if someone wants to get control of their digital consumption," said Markowetz, who confessed his personal score was "completely and irresponsibly high" at 90 out of a possible 100.
He said current approaches to digital diets were crude, and did not really take into account the addictive nature of relationships to information and communication sources.
"We have here a set of scales for those who want to embark on a digital diet," he said.
"The way we deal with emails, news sites and smartphones is classic addictive behaviour. We make a small investment, by checking email, or unlocking a phone to see if there is new text, or by looking a news site. And that may or may not lead to a reward, in the form of an interesting text, mail or new story.
"That is what keeps us returning, for that little reward. It is as if we have stripped down one-armed gambling bandit machines and made them hand-held."
He said he and the team hoped to eventually attract tens of thousands of people to the app – to give them an overview of their own behaviour, but also to generate solid figures on smartphone use.
The main technical hurdle so far is that the app is only for those phones running Android software – the programming for iPhones is not accessible enough.
The aim is to gather enough information about use to be useful for developing more sophisticated strategies to get control.
A small initial study on 50 students over six weeks showed that a quarter used their smartphones for more than two hours a day, while on average they accessed phone services 80 times a day, with some at more than twice this rate.
"I think that in 20 years we will look back in shame at what we have done with our brains with this technology and behaviour," said Markowetz.