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AI-generated image of people in the nature using electronic devices. Generated using DALL-E by Eleonora Viganò.

Do smart­pho­ne well-being apps do more harm than good?

Mobile device applications (apps) are increasingly being used to improve well-being. However, Eleonora Viganò and Christian Hauser’s survey of Swiss residents revealed that frequent users of well-being apps have a lower level of well-being than sporadic users.

Eleonora Viganò

The survey on the use of mental well-being apps in Switzerland

Smartphone users employ well-being apps to improve their physical and mental well-being. The use of well-being apps is increasing and experienced a boom during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other hand, Pedersen et al. 2022 (“Effects of Limiting Digital Screen Use on Well-Being, Mood, and Biomarkers of Stress in Adults”) showed a correlation between a reduction in time spent on digital devices such as smartphones of users and an increase in their perceived mental well-being.

To delve into the relationship between the use of well-being apps and users’ well-being, Eleonora Viganò and Christian Hauser from SIFE conducted an online survey on the use of mental well-being apps in Switzerland. The aim of the study was to find out how people in Switzerland feel about their mental well-being, and how often and for what purpose they use well-being apps (e.g., improve mood, sleep better, record certain habits). The study was conducted in collaboration with AmPuls Market Research between July 6 and July 10, 2023.

The 1,000 respondents aged between 15 and 79 were 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women. The response rate was 24%, with a statistical margin of error of ± 3.1 percentage points. 68.6 per cent of respondents completed the questionnaire in German, 26.8 per cent in French, and 4.6 per cent in Italian. The respondents' perceived mental well-being was measured using the 7-item short version of the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (SWEMWBS).

The findings of the study

The survey revealed that, on a scale measuring mental well-being with a maximum score of 35, people in Switzerland have an average well-being score of 25.8, with the highest well-being respondents being older and working full-time. The survey also showed that Swiss residents use well-being apps most frequently to monitor their health data, improve their mood, and increase their physical activity. Well-being apps are used least frequently for meditation, recording habits, and tracking mood. People who use well-being apps frequently are younger, more likely to work full-time, and live more in cities and larger households with older teenagers; furthermore, they have a higher level of education than occasional users.

It is noteworthy that the study indicated that frequent users have a lower level of mental well-being (23.6) than those who rarely or never access such apps (26.6). This suggests that well-being apps may not deliver on their promise of increasing well-being.

Interpretation of the results

There are two possible interpretations of the result indicating that those who use well-being apps more frequently have a lower level of mental well-being. It could be that people who do not feel well use these apps more often and more intensively, and well-being apps do not manage to bring them to a level of well-being that is close to the average well-being score (25.8).

Alternatively, it is possible that people with a low level of well-being would be even worse off without the use of well-being apps, but as the study is not longitudinal (i.e., people's well-being was not measured along a period of app use), this hypothesis cannot be verified with the current study. In the next stages of the research, Eleonora Viganò and Christian Hauser want to survey the level of well-being of app users before and after a period of app use and investigate the effectiveness of different types of well-being apps.

Eleonora Viganò is a Senior Researcher at the FHGR and the University of Zurich. Her expertise area is digital and AI ethics as well as self-regarding morality. Currently, she is working on digital well-being and the ethical issues and opportunities of the metaverse and AI used in corporate ethics and compliance.

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