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Piloting Smartphone Digital Phenotyping to Understand Problematic Internet Use in an Adolescent and Young Adult Sample


Problematic Internet use (PIU) preferentially affects youth development, particularly youth with psychiatric conditions. Studies attempting to understand PIU and its impact on adolescent mental health have been limited by cross-sectional design and self-report data. Even with a small sample size, digital phenotyping (DP) methodology can address these limitations through repeated sampling and collection of survey and sensor data through personal smartphones. This study pilots a 6-week DP protocol in 28 youth in mental health treatment in order to assess relationships between PIU, mood symptoms, and daily behaviors like smartphone engagement and daily travel in this high-risk population. Our results found shared associations between depression and PIU, where symptom severity of both worsened in the setting of decreased smartphone engagement. These clinically relevant findings indicate that, rather than uniformly worsening mental health, increased digital engagement may actually provide short-term relief from negative affect in youth with psychiatric comorbidities.

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This study was supported by the DuPont Warren Fellowship and Livingston Award, awarded to Dr. M.G. by the Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School.

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Correspondence to Meredith Gansner.

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Conflict of interest

Dr. John Torous receives research support from Otsuka Pharmaceuticals for work unrelated to this manuscript. Drs. Gansner and Carson and Ms. Nisenson and Ms. Lin have no competing financial interests or other conflicts of interest to disclose.

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Written informed consent was obtained for all participants over 18 years of age. For participants under 18 years of age, parental consent and adolescent assent was obtained.

Ethical Approval

This study was conducted in compliance with the ethical standards as outlined in the latest version of the Declaration of Helsinki. This study was approved by the Cambridge Health Alliance Institutional Review Board on 12/24/2021 for continuing review.

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Gansner, M., Nisenson, M., Lin, V. et al. Piloting Smartphone Digital Phenotyping to Understand Problematic Internet Use in an Adolescent and Young Adult Sample. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev 54, 997–1004 (2023).

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