Passive Sensing of Preteens Smartphone Use: An Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Cohort Substudy

Natasha E. Wade, Joseph M. Ortigara, Ryan M. Sullivan, Rachel L. Tomko, Florence J. Breslin, Fiona C. Baker, Bernard F. Fuemmeler, Katia Delrahim Howlett, Krista M. Lisdahl, Andrew T. Marshall, Michael J. Mason, Michael C. Neale, Lindsay M. Squeglia, Dana L. Wolff-Hughes, Susan F. Tapert, Kara S. Bagot

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Background: Concerns abound regarding childhood smartphone use, but studies to date have largely relied on self-reported screen use. Self-reporting of screen use is known to be misreported by pediatric samples and their parents, limiting the accurate determination of the impact of screen use on social, emotional, and cognitive development. Thus, a more passive, objective measurement of smartphone screen use among children is needed. Objective: This study aims to passively sense smartphone screen use by time and types of apps used in a pilot sample of children and to assess the feasibility of passive sensing in a larger longitudinal sample. Methods: The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study used passive, objective phone app methods for assessing smartphone screen use over 4 weeks in 2019-2020 in a subsample of 67 participants (aged 11-12 years; 31/67, 46% female; 23/67, 34% White). Children and their parents both reported average smartphone screen use before and after the study period, and they completed a questionnaire regarding the acceptability of the study protocol. Descriptive statistics for smartphone screen use, app use, and protocol feasibility and acceptability were reviewed. Analyses of variance were run to assess differences in categorical app use by demographics. Self-report and parent report were correlated with passive sensing data. Results: Self-report of smartphone screen use was partly consistent with objective measurement (r=0.49), although objective data indicated that children used their phones more than they reported. Passive sensing revealed the most common types of apps used were for streaming (mean 1 hour 57 minutes per day, SD 1 hour 32 minutes), communication (mean 48 minutes per day, SD 1 hour 17 minutes), gaming (mean 41 minutes per day, SD 41 minutes), and social media (mean 36 minutes per day, SD 1 hour 7 minutes). Passive sensing of smartphone screen use was generally acceptable to children (43/62, 69%) and parents (53/62, 85%). Conclusions: The results of passive, objective sensing suggest that children use their phones more than they self-report. Therefore, use of more robust methods for objective data collection is necessary and feasible in pediatric samples. These data may then more accurately reflect the impact of smartphone screen use on behavioral and emotional functioning. Accordingly, the ABCD study is implementing a passive sensing protocol in the full ABCD cohort. Taken together, passive assessment with a phone app provided objective, low-burden, novel, informative data about preteen smartphone screen use.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere29426
JournalJMIR Mental Health
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • mobile phone
  • passive sensing
  • preadolescents
  • screen time
  • screen use
  • smartphone use


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