Using smartphones to study behavioral and psychological responses to the COVID-19 pandemic

At times like these, many people are asking themselves what they can do to help with the coronavirus crisis. As the outbreak has spread across the globe, researchers across the sciences have leapt into action to do their part. Behavioral scientists have a particularly important role to play in understanding how the spread of the virus, along with the measures taken to combat it, have affected the behaviors and psychological wellbeing of individuals. How effective is social distancing? What are its consequences on mental and physical health? When can social-distancing practices be safely relaxed? What’s the most effective way to do that? Answering these critically important questions depends on being able to accurately measure people’s behaviors. However, measuring behavior in real-world settings is challenging even under normal circumstances, because people may misremember or misrepresent what they have done. Under the conditions of the coronavirus outbreak, studying behaviors is even more challenging because many participants are inaccessible due to social distancing practices.

In collaboration with the Pandemic Project (PI: Jamie Pennebaker), the COVID-19 Smartphone Sensing Study is addressing these issues using the smartphones most people already own. Volunteers download a research app that repurposes smartphone sensors to collect continuous and detailed records of behaviors automatically and unobtrusively. For example, the app gathers data from a smartphone’s standard onboard accelerometers (normally used for the functioning of the phone and apps) to allow statistical models to make inferences about activities (e.g., is the person sitting, walking, biking, etc.). By using these methods, the team can chart people’s actual patterns of activity, mobility, and social behavior. Because the app queries volunteers daily about their psychological states (e.g. mood, stress, etc.), the team can analyze behavioral and psychological responses to the coronavirus pandemic and the measures implemented to combat it. In addition, our multi-disciplinary team at the University of Texas at Austin is running this study in tandem with a parallel study in Germany at Ludwig Maximilian University, permitting cross-national comparisons of responses to the pandemic.

Such information will be vital in devising interventions and treatments for this pandemic and preparing for others that might come. Many key questions urgently need to be addressed, like how exactly do people cope with stress under these circumstances? How do people’s social activities change? Where do people get their information and how does it affect behaviors relevant to public health?

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