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Beyond Self-Report: Tools to Compare Estimated and Real-World Smartphone Use

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Psychologists typically rely on self-report data when quantifying mobile phone usage, despite little evidence of its validity. In this paper we explore the accuracy of using self-reported estimates when compared with actual smartphone use. We also include source code to process and visualise these data. We compared 23 participants' actual smartphone use over a two-week period with self-reported estimates and the Mobile Phone Problem Use Scale. Our results indicate that estimated time spent using a smartphone may be an adequate measure of use, unless a greater resolution of data are required. Estimates concerning the number of times an individual used their phone across a typical day did not correlate with actual smartphone use. Neither estimated duration nor number of uses correlated with the Mobile Phone Problem Use Scale. We conclude that estimated smartphone use should be interpreted with caution in psychological research.
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RESEARCH ARTICLE
Beyond Self-Report: Tools to Compare
Estimated and Real-World Smartphone Use
Sally Andrews
1
*, David A. Ellis
2,3
, Heather Shaw
3
, Lukasz Piwek
4
1Division of Psychology, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, United Kingdom, 2Department of
Psychology, Lancaster University, Lancaster, United Kingdom, 3School of Psychology, University of
Lincoln, Lincoln, United Kingdom, 4Faculty of Business and Law, University of the West of England, Bristol,
United Kingdom
*sally.andrews@ntu.ac.uk
Abstract
Psychologists typically rely on self-report data when quantifying mobile phone usage,
despite little evidence of its validity. In this paper we explore the accuracy of using self-
reported estimates when compared with actual smartphone use. We also include source
code to process and visualise these data. We compared 23 participantsactual smartphone
use over a two-week period with self-reported estimates and the Mobile Phone Problem
Use Scale. Our results indicate that estimated time spent using a smartphone may be an
adequate measure of use, unless a greater resolution of data are required. Estimates con-
cerning the number of times an individual used their phone across a typical day did not cor-
relate with actual smartphone use. Neither estimated duration nor number of uses
correlated with the Mobile Phone Problem Use Scale. We conclude that estimated smart-
phone use should be interpreted with caution in psychological research.
Introduction
Around 2 billion people use smartphones across the globe, with over half the population in
developed countries relying on them daily [1]. This ubiquity means that there is the potential
for objective smartphone data to be used to address research questions in the real world [2].
Indeed, there has been a rapid increase in the number of publications examining the relation-
ship between smartphone use, personality, cognition, health, and behaviour e.g. [38]. Despite
this, smartphones themselves have yet to become a standard item in the psychologists research
toolbox, and little is known about the validity of self-reported estimates of smartphone use.
Miller recently [9] highlighted how important it is for social science researchers to be cur-
rent with new developments in smartphone research methods. Perhaps the biggest barrier to
exploring the objective (actual) use of smartphone data includes developing suitable apps and
the appropriate tools for processing, analysing and visualising big-data sets [10]. Whereas open
source software to create Android apps is freely available for those with no programming expe-
rience [11], there remains no open source software for analysing and visualising the resulting
data.
PLOS ONE | DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0139004 October 28, 2015 1/9
OPEN ACCESS
Citation: Andrews S, Ellis DA, Shaw H, Piwek L
(2015) Beyond Self-Report: Tools to Compare
Estimated and Real-World Smartphone Use. PLoS
ONE 10(10): e0139004. doi:10.1371/journal.
pone.0139004
Editor: Jakob Pietschnig, Universitat Wien,
AUSTRIA
Received: June 24, 2015
Accepted: September 8, 2015
Published: October 28, 2015
Copyright: © 2015 Andrews et al. This is an open
access article distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits
unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any
medium, provided the original author and source are
credited.
Data Availability Statement: All relevant data are
within the paper and its Supporting Information files.
Funding: This work was funded by RIF2014-31 -
Research Investment Fund (University of Lincoln)
(http://www.lincoln.ac.uk/home/research/
researchsupport/researchinvestment/). The funders
had no role in study design, data collection and
analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the
manuscript.
Competing Interests: The authors have declared
that no competing interests exist.
While self-report data can be collected successfully in situations where it is difficult to obtain
objective data, this may not be an appropriate measure when it comes to estimating smart-
phone use. It remains possible that estimates are sufficient for some research questions. but
much of the cognitive literature on time-perception suggests we are poor at estimating such
durations [12]. Any subjective estimate is also likely to ignore rapid, yet pervasive, checking
behaviours [13].
Here we propose that a simple measurerecording when the phone is in usecan provide
a vast array of information about an individual's daily routine. We describe and explore differ-
ent metrics for objective evaluation of smartphone data, and what this can reveal about smart-
phone use. We include source code for processing, visualising and analysing objective
smartphone data, which can be used by those with little to no programming knowledge. As an
applied example, we then explore the claim that people engage in habitual smartphone check-
ing behaviours, by correlating self-report smartphone use estimates with actual smartphone
use and standardised measures of problem mobile phone use [14]. We finally consider other
research questions that could be explored with this methodology.
Method
Participants
Twenty-nine participants were recruited (17 female, mean age = 22.52, range = 1833). All par-
ticipants owned Android smartphones and consisted of staff and students at the University of
Lincoln. A priori calculations suggest this number to be adequate for finding a moderate corre-
lation between actual and self-reported use, so we stopped collecting after this number was
reached. The study conformed to the recommendations of the Declaration of Helsinki. All par-
ticipants provided written and oral informed consent after being advised of the purpose of the
study, and the type of data being collected. Approval for the project was obtained from the
School of Psychology Research Ethics Committee at the University of Lincoln. All participants
were reimbursed a small fee (£10) for their time. Two participants were excluded as they had
technological problems partway through the study, while four additional participants were
excluded from the analysis for not providing all self-report estimates.
Materials
Smartphone Application: We developed an Android smartphone app using Funf in a Box [11].
Apps collecting data from Android devices are generated by selecting sensors, and specifying
sampling frequency. We selected the screen on/off option, resulting in a small app that records
a timestamp when a use starts and ends. Data is encrypted and uploaded to a server over Wi-Fi
(for more details see [11]). Our app simply recorded a timestamp when the phone became
active, and a second when this interaction ended (typically screen use, although this also
includes processor intensive activities including calls and playing music).
Mobile Phone Problem Use Scale (MPPUS): This questionnaire consists of 27 items, which
have previously demonstrated positive correlations with self-reported mobile phone use [14].
The MPPUS remains a highly cited scale across health and psychological research [1519], and
has been used as an additional means of measuring mobile phone use more generally [6,20,
21]) (Cronbach's alpha = .89 for standardised items in our sample).
Procedure
On arrival at the lab, a smartphone application was installed on participants' smartphones.
They were then sent a standardised SMS that they were asked to relay back to the experimenter,
Whats Going On (and Off) with Smartphones?
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to determine the length of time taken to check a message. Time taken was recorded from the
notification tone until the message had been relayed. Participants were asked to record an esti-
mate each evening of how long they used their phone that day, for the next 14 consecutive
days. We asked participants to only estimate their phone use during periods where their phone
screen was switched on, as the Funf on-off sensor was advertised as measuring screen state.
However, during testing, it was discovered that the on-off sensor actually measured whether
the phone was in an interactive state, which included activities such as phone calls and listening
to music, commonly done with the screen switched off. While we did not analyse the diary
data further, it is possible that the process influenced participantslater estimations of their
phone use. When participants returned to the lab after 14 days, they were asked to estimate
how much they used their phone on average each day (including calls and listening to music).
This measure was used in subsequent analyses of subjective estimates. They were then asked to
estimate how many times they use their phone each day (number of uses), and finally were
asked to complete the MPPUS. The app was then uninstalled from their device.
Data from the app were converted into a comma separate values file using Funf processing
scripts. This file was further processed using source code to calculate descriptive statistics and
barcode visualisations (as shown in Fig 1; see S1 Appendix for source code). The scripts allow
the user to explore different times of day (morning, afternoon, evening, and night), and to
explore different metrics associated with checking behaviours of different durations (N.B. the
source code requires Matlab 2014b or later). These can be calculated separately for each day, or
across the entire duration of a study. We use descriptive statistics for the first 14 days of the
study throughout. Some timestamps showed very long single use durations (i.e. >5 hours).
Another limitation to the application is that when the phone switches off, the app does not
record the screen turning off. When the phone is turned on again, it also does not record the
screen turning on. This results in a seemingly long onduration, when the phone itself was
actually turned off. It was therefore unclear whether long durations during the day were as a
result of the phone being in use (e.g. listening to music, or watching a film), or whether the
Fig 1. Barcode of smartphone use over two weeks. Black areas indicate times where the phone was in use and Saturdays are indicated with a red dashed
line. Weekday alarm clock times (and snoozing) are clearly evident.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0139004.g001
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phone was turned off. As it is impossible to be sure that all long durations were because of this,
we retain these data in all analyses, and use median values when calculating an average values
for each day, as this is a more accurate summary of the average use length. We then use these
values to calculate the mean use length for each participant. We established that occasions
when this occurred overnight were the result of the phone being turned off. The included
source code (S1 Appendix) enables the visualisation of the data for each participant across all
days, or to create an average heatmapof one day, seven days, or weekdays and weekends (not
shown here).
Results
Objective Data
The mean daily number of uses and the mean length of these durations (including a median
length for all the durations in a day) and a mean daily duration of phone use (total daily dura-
tion) were calculated for each participant. Participants used their phones a mean of 84.68 times
each day (SD = 55.23) and spent 5.05 hours each day using their smartphone (SD = 2.73).
Length of use was, unsurprisingly, highly skewed, with 55% of all uses less than 30 seconds in
duration (see Fig 2).
We classify checksas uses up to 15 seconds in duration. To explore these behaviours more
closely, we analysed the percentage of phone interactions with durations under 15 seconds.
These showed three distinct periods of increased use; from 1-3s, 5-6s, and 1011 seconds. Fig 3
shows a histogram of such checks (in 0.5 second bins). In the lab, mean time taken to unlock
the phone and read a short message was 8.42s (SD = 1.53). With added distractions outside the
lab, the 10-11s time bin is likely to reflect the time taken to read a short message, check the
time or other notifications. We explored whether any of these durations could result from the
Fig 2. Percentage of uses categorised by duration. This illustrates the highly skewed nature of smartphone usage.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0139004.g002
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display turning itself off, after a period of being idle. However, results indicated that these
default times did not explain any spike in use (default display off times: mean
LOCKED
=
274.88s, SD
LOCKED
= 842.85s; mean
UNLOCKED
= 282.06s, SD
UNLOCKED
= 524.33s).
We also compared phone use at different times of day; night (00:0006:00), morning
(06:0012:00), afternoon (12:0018:00), and evening (18:0024:00), as shown in Fig 4. In this
comparison we calculate median duration lengthi.e. the median amount of time a user
engaged with their phone before turning the display offfor each participant. Finally, we
explored the total duration spent using the phone at each time of day. For the purposes of this
analysis, phone uses that spanned two time windows (e.g. commencing in the morning and
ending in the afternoon) was allocated to the time period in which it originated.
Three one-way repeated measures ANOVAs (Time of Day; morning, afternoon, evening,
night) were calculated separately for total daily duration, use length, and number of uses. Data
from one participant was removed from total daily duration and median use length analyses, as
they had no data from the night time period. There was a significant difference in the number
of phone uses at different times of day (F(3, 78) = 34.62, p<.001, η
ρ
2
= .571). Tukey's LSD
comparisons revealed more individual uses in the afternoon and evening than in the morning
Fig 3. Number of checks in 0.5 second bins across all participants over a 15 second period. Three
spikes of checking duration are visible.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0139004.g003
Fig 4. Participantsmean number of phone uses (a), mean total duration (b), and mean duration length
(c) at different times of day. Error bars show 1 SE from the mean.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0139004.g004
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and at night (all ps<.001), that there were more uses in the morning than at night (p<.001),
but that there were no differences in the number of uses between afternoon and evening (p=
.083). Fig 4a shows these differences. There were no significant differences in total daily dura-
tion at different times of day (F(3, 78) = .94, p= .414, η
ρ
2
= .036; see Fig 4b, nor in median use
length (F(3, 78) = 2.33, p= .081, η
ρ
2
= .082; see Fig 4c).
Comparison of objective and subjective measures of smartphone use
We conducted paired-samples t-tests and Pearson correlations to compare actual and esti-
mated smartphone use (see Table 1). For number of phone uses, there were far more actual
phone uses (84.68) than were estimated (37.20; t(23) = 3.93, p<.001), and no significant corre-
lation between the two (r(21) = .11, p= .610) indicating that estimated number of phone uses
does not reflect actual number of uses. For total daily duration there was no significant differ-
ence between actual (5.05 hours) and estimated use (4.12 hours; t(22) = 1.78, p= .086) and
there was a moderate positive correlation between the two (p= .02). This suggests that esti-
mated duration of use may have reasonable relative validity.
We finally compared scores on the MPPUS with objective and estimated smartphone use
and checks using Pearson's correlations (see Table 1). None of these analyses revealed any sig-
nificant relationships (ps>.15). Ten participants scored more than 2SD greater than Bianchi
& Phillips[14] mean, indicating problem use.
Discussion
Estimated levels of smartphone use have previously been related to sleep, interpersonal rela-
tionships, driving safety, and personality [5,7,22,23]. Here we observe that self-reported esti-
mates of phone use relate moderately to actual behavior in such situations. Conversely,
estimated number of checks showed no clear relationship with actual uses; indeed, actual uses
amounted to more than double the estimated number. It is possible that our limited sample
size obscured a larger effect size. Nevertheless, we suggest that estimated use may not be suffi-
cient if a higher resolution of data are required, but that estimates of total use are likely to be
adequate for many research designs. However, for exploring checking behaviours, estimated
number of uses show little reliability for measuring actual uses.
The quantity of short checking behaviours we observed are comparable with those found by
Oulasvirta and colleagues [24], who collected data in 2009. Smartphone use has become much
more prevalent in the intervening six years, and it would be easy to assume that smartphone
use would increase accordingly. However, our data indicate that checking behaviours are no
more prevalent now than they were six years ago. It is interesting to note that people have little
awareness of the frequency with which they check their phone. Oulasvirta and colleagues made
this claim in 2012, however this is the first paper to demonstrate that rapid mobile phone inter-
actions are habitual [25]. While phone interactions under thirty seconds have previously been
classified as 'checking behaviours', our data suggest that habitual goal-and reward-based
actions are likely to be less than 15 seconds in duration when it comes to checking the time or
message notifications.
In our study, the MPPUS did not correlate with any measure of phone useactual or esti-
mated. The MPPUS is used not only as a measure of problem phone use, but also as an addi-
tional measure of phone use more generally. To determine validity of the MPPUS for this
purpose, we correlated objective phone use with MPPUS scores. This is not to say that the
MPPUS lacks validity, but rather that people use smartphones for a variety of reasons [26], and
that increased use does not necessitate a problem in itself [27]. It may seem reasonable to
assume that those who spend a long time on their phone have problem mobile phone use.
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PLOS ONE | DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0139004 October 28, 2015 6/9
However, heavy users are not necessarily the same as problem users. While it is easy to conflate
heavy use with problem use, research into smartphone use should identify heavy use and prob-
lem use independently of one another (e.g. [8]).
Examining how much people actually use their smartphone can be useful for a variety of
applications. For example, all except one of our participants used their phone as an alarm
clock, and most reported that they always use their phone last thing before sleeping. These
usage patterns therefore provide a non-invasive indication of sleep length, which has the poten-
tial to augment sleep diary data [28]. Furthermore, while we have considered usage patterns
across the day, a further extension to this analysis would be to consider how these patterns
across different days of the week. This is likely to have additional social and occupational con-
sequences [29].
Trull and Ebner-Priemer [9] and Miller [10] argue that smartphone data have a great deal
to offer as a research tool in psychology, yet comparatively little research utilises objective
smartphone data. Here we show that estimates of smartphone use have a place within current
research, but we caution that its validity is limited and should be complimented by measure-
ments of real behaviour. We also provide the first method to automatically sample and easily
visualise the frequency of smartphone use with a simple background app. We hope that meth-
ods described in this paper will help overcome some barriers to accessing smartphone data for
research in psychology and that it will form a foundation to build upon in the coming years.
Supporting Information
S1 Appendix. Source Code for analysing smartphone use data. Source code, example
screenprobe.csv data file, and README.txt for processing, visualising and analysing smart-
phone use data. csv2data.mconverts ScreenProbe.csv to usable data, while barcode.mallows
visualisations to be generated. descriptives.mgenerates descriptive statistics that can be used for
quantitative analysis. Source code requires Matlab version 2014b or later, but does not require
any specific toolboxes.
(ZIP)
Author Contributions
Conceived and designed the experiments: SA HS DAE. Performed the experiments: HS. Ana-
lyzed the data: SA. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: SA. Wrote the paper: SA
DAE HS LP.
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Estimated uses Actual uses Estimated duration Actual duration
Actual uses 0.11
Estimated duration 0.02 -0.03
Actual duration 0.23 0.12 0.47
a
MPPUS 0.03 0.29 0.17 0.30
a
p= .02
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Smartphones have evolved from being a helpful tool in our days to be an indispensable complement. Its presence in our daily lives has grown to reach a problematic use on occasions. This fact is even more remarkable when we speak of young adults and adolescents, in which problematic situations can be identified as derived from its use. In this study, we analyze the self-perception of 409 young adults pursuing an Education university degree on the use and consumption of the smartphone via their responses to the Mobile Phone Problem Use Scale. The results show that, despite not perceiving the use of the mobile phone as problematic, some of the behaviors described by them as habitual would imply inappropriate use of the smartphone. Some outlined by the sample included mitigating loneliness, fear of isolation, or using it to feel better. Surprisingly, these are not recognized as problematic, despite being some of the most apparent indicators of misuse. The analysis of the results shows how younger populations and, mainly women, present this type of worrying and unconscious behavior. However, the increasing use of these devices within training areas offer new options to favor its proper use, mitigating the possible adverse effects of its use.
... Prior research on this topic used generally to compare objective and subjective data (e.g. Boase & Ling, 2013;Andrews et al., 2015;Lee et al., 2017;Parry et al., 2021) and to analyze the impact of screen time on certain variables (well-being, Problematic Smartphone Use, etc.). To the best of our knowledge, no study has been specifically conducted on the effect of monitoring on self-regulation of smartphone use. ...
Conference Paper
Smartphones are now the most widely used devices in the world, and their usage monitoring applications have become a general interest topic. However, few experimental studies investigate the reflexive effects of this monitoring on users. To address this point, this paper presents a longitudinal experiment on the effects of monitoring on various variables (e.g. screen time, types of uses). Objective and subjective data from 60 participants, divided into treatment and control groups, were collected over a 3 weeks period. Both groups had to estimate their daily usages, but the treatment group subsequently had access to their real data. Results have shown a normalizing influence of monitoring on smartphone usage, by improving estimation of screen time, reducing time spent on some underestimated applications and increasing use of others overestimated applications. This research paves the way for public policies promoting mastery of its own technological uses and responsible digital usage.
... As metamedia, they combine various functions and provide access to resources such as social support and information (Fortunati & Taipale, 2014;. Moreover, smartphones can be used meaningfully for short periods (Andrews et al., 2015;. Thus, for parentswho might only have limited time and can only invest limited effort into coping with a stressorsmartphones might be particularly suitable tools for coping. ...
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Being a parent of young children is associated with both joy and stress. High parental stress was shown to be associated with decreased parental wellbeing and negative child outcomes. Thus, it is important that parents successfully cope with stress. Research has shown that becoming a parent often results in constraints on time allocation and a perceived state of isolation, making it harder to cope with stress. Smartphones might be a useful tool for parental stress management. For most parents, smartphones are always and easily accessible. Moreover, smartphones can provide many resources such as social support and information and can be used for short periods. Accordingly, first studies show that parents often use their smartphones to cope with stress. However, parental smartphone use has been widely problematized in academic and public discussions because smartphones are said to distract parents from interacting with their children. Research on how parents use smartphones to their benefit is still limited. Moreover, we do not know yet whether and under what circumstances coping using smartphones effectively reduces parental stress. To fill this knowledge gap, I examined in my dissertation how mothers of young children use their smartphones for coping with stress and under what circumstances coping using smartphones is effective. As mothers are still the primary caregivers, my dissertation mainly focuses on mothers. In a first theoretical step, I conducted a systematic scoping review summarizing and integrating the previous literature on media use for coping. Many studies assessed how media are used for coping. However, the literature had not clearly identified where media have their place in stress management models. In the scoping review, I suggested placing media in the transactional model of stress and coping by differentiating between coping strategies, such as social support or distraction and coping tools, such as talking to a friend or using a smartphone. When confronted with a stressful encounter, individuals choose a combination of coping tools and coping strategies to cope with stress. The fit of this combination with the situational circumstances determines whether the coping efforts are successful. Based on this conceptualization, I conducted a qualitative focus groups study and a quantitative experience sampling study (ESS). In the focus group study, building on a synthesis of the literature on digital media use for parenting and smartphone use while parenting, I interviewed parents in a medium-sized city and a parent-child health retreat clinic about how they use their smartphones for stress management. In the ESS, I additionally drew on theoretical conceptualizations from mobile communication and digital wellbeing research. Over 200 mothers filled in four questionnaires a day for one week and answered questions about a stressful situation that had happened in the last two hours. Both studies showed that when mothers are in stressful situations with their children, they mainly use their phones to distract themselves from the stressful encounter and to find information and support. In the focus groups study, parents reported many instances in which they successfully used their phones for stress coping. In the ESS, mothers, however, experienced a smaller stress decrease in stressful situations in which they used their phone than in situations involving no phone use. Using positive phone content, though, was related to increased coping effectiveness. My dissertation also demonstrated that social norms around maternal smartphone use play an important role when mothers use their phones for coping with stress. To explore this, I suggested a social constructivist viewpoint on media use and media effects. This viewpoint posits that the perception of and feelings around ones own media use are just as important for media effects as characteristics of objectively measurable media use, such as usage time. Further, I argue that these media use perceptions are influenced by what others say about media use and are, thus, socially constructed. Confirming the value of this viewpoint, I show in the ESS that mothers who perceived stronger injunctive norms against parental phone use experienced increased guilt when they used their phone for stress coping. Feelings of guilt around phone use in turn were related to a diminished coping effectiveness. Overall, my dissertation shows that by using positive content, mothers can use their smartphones to their benefit when they are confronted with stressful situations. Negative social norms against parental smartphone use can, by inducing guilt, be associated with diminished coping effectiveness when mothers use their phone to cope with stress. Therefore, academic and public discussions around smartphone use should consider the benefits of smartphone use for parents so that a more nuanced debate does not lead to social pressure and feelings of guilt among parents.
... When comparing self-reported screen time to more objective measures (using an app for example) some under-reporting is evident, although total daily duration was more accurately reported compared with number of phone use. 35 In the current study, self-report was used to decrease participant burden and privacy invasion, but it is worth noting that the screen time duration acquired in this study should not be considered an exact dose but rather interpreted as a proxy for high/low screen users. ...
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