When the iPhone started spitting out Screen Time reports on the widgets screen, people felt surprise -- disgust, even -- at their own habits. I remember swiping right and thinking, "I spent how much time on Instagram today?!" It was a simple innovation that shocked many people into using their phones with more care and awareness. But now there is something else to quantify how you interact with screens. There's something bigger, something more insightful and something potentially more actionable in the near future. It's called your "screenome," and it's about more than the total quantity of time you spend on your screen. It's about what you actually do during the hours, minutes and seconds you spend on your screen.
What is a screenome?
"Screenome" is a play on the word "genome," which refers to the unique set of genetic material that every living organism contains. In the paper published in the journal Human-Computer Interaction, the scientists define a screenome as "the record of individual experiences represented as a sequence of screens that people view and interact with over time."
In other words, the screenome refers to your unique collection of screens that you see on an hourly, daily, weekly and yearly basis, ultimately culminating in the collection of screens you see over your entire lifespan.
Nilam Ram, one of the researchers who worked on the Screenomics paper, told CNET that the distinction between simply viewing screens and interacting with them has pretty much disappeared.
Because most modern screens facilitate interactivity, the two are equally important and screenomics covers all of both categories by capturing "channel switching, swiping, zooming and navigating," Ram said.
To get a visual snippet of a screenome, think back to what you used your phone or computer for during breakfast this morning. Did you read the morning's news, check Instagram, respond to a text message or watch a cute animal video on Facebook? Did you do all of those things?
You can navigate through an incredible amount of content in less than a minute -- think about how much you swipe through and scroll past in the matter of a year.
How did researchers invent the screenome?
In a department called The Screenomics Lab at Stanford University, a team of experts (including Ram) in communications, media, human development, family studies, genetics, medicine, information science and technology worked together to sequence the screenomes of 400 people for the groundbreaking study.
The Screenomics team was born in 2013 after Ram and Byron Reeves, another researcher on the team, spent a year at Stanford's Center for Advanced Study of Behavioral Science. The duo started looking at how quickly individuals switch from one app, software or type of content to another using sequences of screenshots of people's laptop screens.
They realized that people were switching screens, on average, every 20 seconds.
After commissioning a screenomics study, participants all over the country volunteered to install the lab's software onto their phones, tablets and computers, where the software takes screenshots every 5 seconds. Those millions of screenshots get delivered back to the lab's research servers, where a series of machine-learning algorithms tries to pull meaningful information from that data.
There are 86,400 seconds in a day, which in principle means the Screenomics software could pull 17,280 screenshots from every screen it's installed on, every single day. The researchers optimized the software, however, so that it only takes screenshots when the screen is on. They then use that intermittent sampling to reconstruct what happened during all 24 hours of the day, Ram said.
To date, the team has captured more than 25 million screenshots from adults and children in the US, China and Myanmar. The data currently held by the Screenomics team is vast, but the researchers aren't done yet. Now, Ram said, the team is at a point where they're trying to analyze participants' sequences into patterns and come to a final hypothesis.
What does screenome research mean for health?
That final hypothesis I just mentioned? Well, the working hypothesis is that certain screen patterns, or screenomes, might relate to certain health conditions. For example, scientists have already linked social media usage to well-being (or lack thereof) and eating disorders.
Ram and his colleagues in the Screenomics lab think that with enough data, they may be able to uncover a relationship between how we interact with the screens in our lives and the current state of our mental health.
While Ram tells me this on the phone, a lightbulb pings in my head. I realize that when I'm tired or in a bad mood, I tend to flip-flop incessantly between my email and the document I'm supposed to be writing, not actually making much progress. I ask him if that's what he means.
"Yes, like that," Ram says. "You recognize that a particular pattern relates to a particular condition you are in."
The thing is, he continues, all patterns are relatively idiosyncratic, which means everyone's indicators are different.
"For you, it's switching between a story document and your email," he tells me, "but for me, it might be switching between a data sheet and a research paper. And that's why we can't tell just yet what these patterns mean for whole populations."
How will this change all the advice we hear about 'screen time'?
There's so much heterogeneity between screenomes that Ram says he isn't sure causal relationships will ever manifest, but if they do, he hypothesizes that screen-related advice will change radically. For instance, he can't yet say that frequently switching between email and documents frequently means you are tired, but more research into screenomes might show us that.
"Right now, all the advice is about the low-hanging fruit," Ram says. "We give advice in bulk, tell people to spend less time on their phones."
That advice is fine and even necessary, he says, but he wants -- and expects -- to see health professionals guide people at a more granular level. Because there aren't any causal relationships yet, like there is with screen time and depression, the Screenomics researchers can't yet offer any specific advice. But the idea is that better advice will come about to help us avoid using our screens in detrimental ways.
Recognizing the importance of screenome research
Ram gives one final example to make sure I understand the depth of information screenomes can provide.
"Think about what you do when you are messaging someone on your phone and the three little dots appear," Ram says. "Do you stay there and wait for the message to come through? Or do you leave and flit through other apps and information?"
I think for a moment about how when I'm nervous or upset about the conversation, I navigate out of the messaging app. If I don't really care, I often leave it open. I decide a good answer is, "It depends," to which Ram replies… "Exactly."