By 2020, smartphones are on track to be in the hand of around 70 percent of the world’s population. Many of us already have these glowing rectangular devices that have permanently changed the way and the speed at which we communicate. While they’ve made the world a more connected place to live they’ve also caused concern about the affects they have on us: Radiation, isolation, overuse, and, yes, even wrinkles are points of debate.

This is especially true among the medical community where medical apps and mobile health technologies have caused both delight (patient adherence) and frustration (entering data into EHRs). Vaunted organizations are also getting in on the discussion. Recently, Dr. Iltifat Husain reviewed the new usage guidelines set forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics on tablets and smartphones for children.

But Tania Lombrozo, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, posits a different take on the standard “Is mobile tech good or evil?” debate.

In a well-thought out commentary published by NPR, Lombrozo lays out her theory that, while these devices have their downsides, perhaps, they are actually a breakthrough in studying human behavior and social science.

Never before in the history of humanity have so many people been connected and active with something that can track anything they do down to their exact location. The sensors, altimeters, GPS locators, and apps allow researchers to move their studies out of the labs into the real world where large sample groups are already waiting with monitoring devices embedded on them in their pockets and purses.

Professor Lombrozo cites a few studies in psychology where mobile devices have given a deeper insight into human emotion and experience than would have been possible in traditional research. This includes a study of 12,000 participants on how location affects mood. The results determined that peoples in socialization-conducive environments were happier. She also referenced a study that recorded class attendance via GPS and audio capture and correlated frequency with higher GPAs.

Admittedly, this type of research is just the beginning. But it’s encouraging to think that a device that is sometimes maligned as a timewaster and anti-social will actually provide a richer understanding of how we humans interact, think, and feel.