Are screens harmful? This project wants to record everything you do on your phone, to find out

Precisely mapping the doings of our digital selves is the only way to understand online behavior.

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93:20:00

Forget DNA: researchers from the University of Stanford now want to map something perhaps just as sensitive, your screenome. And the concept is exactly what it sounds like – a map of our digital selves, which instead of genes and chromosomes, is made up of millions of screenshots recording exactly what we do with our phones. 

The initiative, dubbed the Human Screenome Project in reference to its long-established counterpart the Human Genome Project, is in fact software that can be built into a device to automatically screenshot every five seconds over a period of time.

The "Screenomics" platform records, encrypts and transmits the screenshots to the project's headquarters in Stanford, where each individual's screenome is mapped to better understand their digital behavior.

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Screenomes aren't meant to shame you for bad Instagram stalking habits or embarrassing selfies. The researchers behind the project hope that understanding how people spend time online will give them a better idea of how technology is linked to social issues and mental health.

"It might turn out, for instance, that some levels of well-being are related to how fragmented people's use of media is, or the content that they engage with," said the scientists. "In other words, academics need a multidimensional map of digital life."

Of course, the question of whether screens impact public health has made headlines pretty much since screens have existed, and is only getting more relevant as screen time increases. The most recent study reported that across the world, mobile phone use has risen 35% in two years to 3.7 hours a day.

The issue, according to Stanford's researchers, is that no study has ever focused on finding out what happens exactly during those 3.7 hours; and, using screen time as the only metric, the existing results have rarely identified any significant consequence to spending large amounts of time online. As a result, argued the scientists, the "thousands of studies of the effects of digital media" have remained fairly limited.

An example of the application of Screenomics provides a case in point. The platform recorded the screenomes of two anonymous teenagers over three weeks, and found that while at first glance, their activity might come across as similar, in reality there were "dramatic differences" in the way they used their phones. 

While one teenager spread his time online over 186 sessions, for example, the second one only looked at their phone 26 times. The first also spent significantly less time producing content rather than consuming it. 

"These patterns could signal important psychological differences," read the paper. "Participant A's days were more fragmented, maybe indicating issues with attentional control, or perhaps reflecting an ability to process information faster."

The Screenomics platform has also been applied in a research project on the consumption of news, which found that the technology could be used to better flag fake news online. 

In a separate report published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK, experts similarly called for a better understanding of the nature of content viewed online, arguing that more informed research into the risks and benefits of social media use is crucial to protect children and young people from harmful content. 

Ultimately, understanding user behavior will help inform better policy. The World Health Organization, for instance, already has guidelines to limit children's screen time; but they were immediately contested by various experts pointing out that the rules were based on poor evidence

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For all the benefits that better research will have, however, it remains that users may be put off from having their online behavior recorded in the most intricate details. While Stanford's scientists are planning to let their software soon screenshot devices every second, it is far from guaranteed that every user will be on board with the project. 

The Screenome Project calls for no less than "a collective effort to produce and analyze recordings of everything people see and do on their screens". It hardly gets more Orwellian, but the researchers do acknowledge that the initiative is likely to raise concerns about privacy, data leaks and surveillance.

They provided, therefore, assurance that the data collected is encrypted, anonymized, and transferred to secure services. "All our project proposals are vetted by university institutional review boards, charged with protecting human participants," said the research paper.