Conducting studies on the effects of digital media has become more difficult for social scientists.
A group of researchers, mostly affiliated with Stanford University, argued in a recent paper that the ubiquity of devices and their use is rendering traditional methods and terms irrelevant in gauging the various effects of digital media consumption. Even concepts like “screen time” are too broad to offer meaningful insight, the researchers claim.
“It’s very counterintuitive to say at this stage, but the fact is, no one really knows what the heck people are seeing on their screens,” Byron Reeves, a professor of communications at Stanford University and an author on the paper, told The New York Times.
To solve this problem, Reeves and company have developed a concept known as the “screenome.” A play on “genome,” this method aims to develop a highly personalized record of how individuals use technology.
“The point is your thread is yours, mine is mine, and we use it to regulate emotions…in our own idiosyncratic way,” Reeves said.
To create “screenomes,” the researchers downloaded software onto volunteers’ smartphones and laptops that took pictures every five seconds of whatever was happening on the screen. The screenshots were then sent back to the researchers’ server to be analyzed.
In their paper, published in March, the researchers presented some of their findings. Test subjects, they found, switched from one activity to the next every 20 seconds and rarely spent more than 20 minutes uninterrupted on any particular activity. For at least one subject, the researchers were also able to identify when and where she was most often on her phone.
The paper also includes analysis on the digital threads of college students. Over four days, their digital behaviors varied dramatically — a common dynamic in media consumption studies that makes forming conclusions difficult.
It is this variation that Reeves and his colleagues are trying to account for with screenomes and “screenomics.” If their method catches on, writes Times’ science reporter Benedict Carey, the use of screenomes could “prompt a fundamental shift in the kinds of questions researchers pose.”
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