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Experts Say ‘How Much’ Is the Wrong Way to Assess Screen Time

5 minute read

Way back in the late 1990s—not long after home Internet use became widespread in the U.S.—researchers started turning up links between time spent on computers and poor mental health.

A 1998 study in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior found heavy internet use—defined as 38 hours or more of non-work, non-school online activity—was associated with “significant social, psychological, and occupational impairments.” The study authors wrote that such use “caused detrimental effects such as poor grade performance among students, discord among couples, and reduced work performance among employees.”

Flash forward two decades, and researchers continue to find connections between heavy screen use and negative outcomes.

A 2017 study of U.S. adults found spending six hours or more a day watching TV or using computers was associated with a higher risk for depression. And a study published last year found young people who spend seven hours or more a day interacting with screens are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety as those who use screens more moderately.

Spending lots of time on social media may be especially risky. A 2018 study from the University of Pennsylvania found students who trimmed their use of social media to 30 minutes a day experienced significant improvements in wellbeing.

At the same time, much of the research on screens is controversial. There’s expert disagreement about whether heavy screen use is truly the cause of some people’s depression, or if people with depression are just more likely to spend lots of time on screens. “I think it makes perfect sense that people who are depressed could find solace in these [screen-based] activities,” says Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University.

At the very least, much of the existing evidence indicates that spending many hours each day looking at screens (not including time spent on work or school activities) is a warning sign that a person is at elevated risk for depression or other mental health disorders. And by most estimates, Americans are spending most of their free time engaging with screens.

A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found 26% of adults report going online “almost constantly.” And a recent Nielson report found the average American spends more than 11 hours a day absorbing media (though that includes non-screen activities like listening to radio or podcasts).

So what’s the ideal amount of screen time? While it sounds like a simple question, experts say the “just right” amount depends on what type of screen a person is looking at, why they’re looking at it, and—maybe most importantly—what they’re forgoing in order to spend time on screens.

“Content and context matter,” says Doreen Dodgen-Magee, an Oregon-based psychologist and author of Deviced! Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World. If you have a free day and you spend eight hours researching the cure for Ebola, that’s great, she says. But if you can’t visit a bathroom without watching a few minutes of “gonzo porn,” that’s not so great.

The goal is finding balance between screen-based and non-screen activities, Dodgen-Magee says. If you’re blowing off your friends or family in favor or spending time on screens, that’s a problem. Ditto if you think your attention span is shrinking, or if you’re always leaving chores half finished, she says.

The right question to ask, says Cal Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, is What value are you getting out of the time you spend looking at screens, and what value are you losing? “If you find your screens are starting to displace activities you think are more important or meaningful, that’s a sign that you may want to reconsider your use,” he says.

The “classic example,” says Newport, is the parent who’s distracted by his smartphone when he should be interacting with his children. “If it’s your kids’ bath time and you’re looking at a phone, that’s a wakeup call,” he says. Another common one: failing to finish one screen-based activity because you’re distracted by a second. “If you’ve been looking forward to Game of Thrones all week but then you can’t get through the episode without checking your phone, that’s a sign you may have shifted toward moderate behavioral addiction,” he says.

If one or more of these criteria describe you—or you feel like your use of screens is somehow interfering with your mental health, relationships or ambitions—Newport recommends a “digital declutter.” This involves ditching television, video games and the Internet during your free time for 30 days—an act of sacrifice Newport has studied in real-world volunteers and writes about in his book Digital Minimalism.

Once those 30 days are up, he says, you can rebuild your screen habits from scratch—adding back in the ones you think are important or beneficial while leaving out the ones that aren’t. “Most people are really surprised by the amount of free time they have when they cut out all the technology and TV,” he says.

Newport says the goal isn’t to eliminate screens from your life; it’s to imbue the time you spend on screens with “intentionality.”

“You want the feeling that your technology is improving your life, not detracting from its quality,” he says.

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