A purposeful approach to using your screen wisely.
If you want to know how the portable screen affects life in America, try people watching at restaurants. That’s just what BYU family life professor Sarah Coyne did in her latest study, observed couples eating out. And what did she observe? A whole lotta phubbing (the new portmanteau combining phone and snubbing). You’ve witnessed it—people simultaneously alone together, absorbed in glowing screens.
“We tend to think this is a young-person problem,” says Coyne. “But oh my gosh, 60-year-olds use their phones constantly on dates!” In fact, Coyne found no difference in screen use by age. And, as one might expect, the higher the phone use, the worse the couples fared in measures of connectedness and communication.
A phub is among the more benign costs of a tech-laden world; the escalating use of smartphones and their ilk (tablets, video games—everything that falls in the “screen” sink) has been linked to all sorts of negative outcomes, including loneliness, anxiety, depression, poor sleep, and obesity. The devices are also a conduit of too many societal plagues, from sexting to cyberbullying to pornography.
You don’t even have to be using your device for it to affect you. Research shows the mere presence of a mobile device diminishes your face-to-face interactions1 and reduces cognitive performance.2
“A lot of people say, ‘Hey, we just need to put the phones down,’” says Coyne. And yet, after two decades of studying screen time and publishing in top journals, Coyne admits that the solution is more complicated than that.
Why? Because there’s good screen use—and then there’s the bad and the ugly.
Now, 15 years after the iPhone debuted and people started carrying pocket computers, Coyne and other experts share how our screen time is impacting us, why we should curb our use, and how we can better control our time on device. Spoiler alert: some BYU findings may surprise you.
The All-You-Can-Screen Buffet
In its “State of Mobile 2022” report, analytics firm Data.ai (formerly App Annie), found that adults spent an average of 4.8 hours a day on a mobile device in 2021. That’s practically one-third of one’s waking hours—and that doesn’t even account for television or screen time at work.
Research shows that we check our mobiles within minutes of waking (71 percent of us, per Reviews.org). We take them to the toilet (74 percent, says PC Magazine). And we’re still looking at them while driving (on nearly 9 out of 10 drives, says Wired)—at the expense of lives.
“I study human judgment and decision making, and I’m especially interested in the things we do badly,” says Adam Alter, New York University professor of marketing and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. “If a huge percentage of the population today feels tethered to their devices in a way they don’t want to be, there’s something wrong.”
If you haven’t yet, download a time-tracking app, he advises. Most people are shocked by what they find; we routinely underestimate our use by half.
Stopping cues were once part of standard media consumption: games, newspapers, shows—they all had an ending. The pause was built in. Stopping cues are now nonexistent. Streaming services autoplay the next episode of the show we’re watching, and Pinterest, TikTok, and YouTube dish up their next offering as well—it’s all bottomless.
One of Alter’s primary concerns? The mountains of data captured with our every click, allowing platform designers to zero in on what sticks. Today’s Facebook, he says, is “a sort of weaponized version” embedded with countless hooks to fuel engagement.
“The levers of addiction are very well documented and known and manipulated by developers,” says BYU Marriott associate professor of information systems James Gaskin, a game developer himself. “Developers know if they design certain features into the game, you’re more likely to keep playing—even if you lose. And they know how to make you want to share the game with others.”
Take Candy Crush. Countless outlets have traced its addictive tactics, and there are still more than 250 million people playing monthly. And middle-aged women—the game’s target audience—now outnumber teenage boys as gamers, according to the Entertainment Software Association.
Games, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter—they hoover up time. Our discretionary time, Alter argues in his April 2017 TED talk, is “where our humanity lives”—it’s the time for hobbies and close relationships and likely our most meaningful moments. And now, he says, “there’s only a very small sliver of that time that we’re not in front of some sort of screen.”
Addiction Is Real
Everyone has a drug of choice online, says Stanford psychiatrist and professor Anna Lembke, whose 2021 book Dopamine Nation calls the smartphone “the modern-day hypodermic needle.” No one can tolerate an empty second alone with their thoughts; we’re “forever interrupting ourselves,” says Lembke, with a swipe, a video, a like. Everyone’s searching for the next digital hit, she notes.
If the language of addiction sounds hyperbolic, consider this: media addiction is Coyne’s biggest fear, “apart from someone contacting my child online and sexting,” she says. “Media addiction is a scary one.” The addiction is assessed, she says, using the same nine criteria used for substance addiction. The big three criteria are withdrawal, fixation, and tolerance—needing more and more to cope. “Everyone,” Coyne adds, “uses their screens to cope somewhat.”
Coyne says just a small proportion of users, 5 to 10 percent, develop a full-blown addiction; Lembke, for her part, says there’s been an “explosion of minor addictions.” Who’s affected? It boils down to “differential susceptibility,” says Coyne, and she can’t emphasize this enough. It’s why, when she’s asked for the umpteenth time at what age she recommends giving kids their first phone, her answer is always the same: it totally depends on the child.
“Media,” she doubles down, “impacts everyone differently.”
Nothing makes this clearer than her most monumental—and surprising—paper to date, published in Computers in Human Behavior in March 2020. In an eight-year longitudinal study, the longest of its kind, Coyne and four of her colleagues followed 500 adolescents, examining the link between depression and anxiety and the time spent using social media. Surely, the researchers hypothesized, as teens increased or decreased their use, measures of anxiety and depression would follow in step.
Not the case.
Two teens could pass the same number of hours—and hours—online with vastly different outcomes. Time on the device was irrelevant. It’s not how much we use our phones, says Coyne—it’s how.
Screen Time Well Spent
It makes sense that not all screen time is created equal: watching a two-hour documentary is vastly different from spending two hours on TikTok. So what kind of use is most concerning?
Excessive video games, especially violent ones, says Coyne. And social media is a double-edged sword. A recent study, says Coyne, shows that social media had no effect on self-esteem for 88 percent of users—and for 4 percent, it improved self-esteem. But for 8 percent, social media was crushing.3
Your mood prior to jumping on can portend what toll social media will take, some of Gaskin’s latest research indicates. He’s done several studies looking specifically at the link between depression, comparison, and envy. Aimless browsing is another pitfall. Combine the two—aimlessness and feeling in a funk—says Gaskin, and you have “the recipe for a death spiral.”
But even those who report high life satisfaction are not insulated. One of Gaskin’s studies, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology in March 2019, showed that those with the highest life satisfaction actually experience the most envy when passively using social media—passive being the key word. “It comes back to this: are you using your screens to actively engage to make life better or as a sedative to get through time?” he asks.
Gaskin suggests breaking your screen time into two columns: active and passive.
Active use is better, say the experts. It’s intentional. “You go online with a purpose,” says Gaskin. This includes all the things that make the phone a kind of digital Swiss army knife: it’s a map, a camera, a boarding pass, a wallet, a newspaper.
Active use is also net positive. By actively commenting, sharing, and connecting on social media—and not just lurking—one reaps the benefits of connection. Playing video games can likewise fall in the active category, “particularly when those games are played socially, with others immediately in the room, or in a synchronous manner,” says Gaskin.
Passive use, in contrast, is the watching-from-the-sidelines stuff. It’s binging Netflix or Hulu along with mindless scrolling and compulsive gaming.
However, with that in mind, screen time doesn’t have to be all work and no play. Perhaps there’s scheduled time for recreational smartphone use or pockets of time in waiting rooms. “You just don’t want it to be the thing you reach for mindlessly every time,” Gaskin observes. “Just like every time you walk through the kitchen, you don’t want to be grabbing junk out of the refrigerator.”
YouTube, it turns out, is Gaskin’s personal vice and virtue. He runs a YouTube channel dedicated to multivariate-statistics explainer videos, with a following more than 34,000 strong. It’s an example of what he calls one of the best uses of technology: education. But YouTube is also his kryptonite, where he can squander time away. “If I find myself wasting time on YouTube, I will actually say out loud, ‘I’m doomscrolling,’” he says, “if only to be accountable to the air around me.”
“Screens should be here to improve life rather than to get through life,” he states. “If you’re using screens to escape, that’s probably not good.”
A Plea to Parents
Digital natives (generally defined as millennials and younger) are not just growing up in a media-saturated world, says Coyne—they are being raised by distracted parents. Much of her research explores “technoference,” or how technology gets in the way of our relationships—from old married couples to infants, who these days are held by parents with phones in hand. And Coynes’s latest finding is a gut check.
In a national study, she found parents’ total time on device is affecting their teens. In fact, parental device use actually predicted teen mental health. “We ran the data all sorts of ways,” says Coyne, “and that was a consistent finding that kept coming out.
“Instead of focusing so much on telling your kid to put the phone down, notice your own habits and work on the relationship,” she continues. “That’s going to have such a better impact on your child’s mental health.”
Coyne is now turning her lens to children under five to see if heightened media use at such a young age predisposes them to addiction; the American Society of Pediatrics calls for no screen time before age two and no more than one hour a day up to age five. Pacifying a toddler with a smartphone is a bad idea, Coyne’s recent work shows—it stunts their emotional regulation. Especially troubling are the “brain-acid videos,” as Gaskin calls them, that young children devour on loop and parents employ as a babysitter.
BYU associate professor of sociology Benjamin Gibbs studies how social class influences child development, and without question, he says, there’s more technology use among disadvantaged kids, whose families have fewer resources for things such as childcare or extracurricular activities and use screens to fill the void.
And it could be a double deficit. “In the next couple years,” predicts Gibbs, “there will be a sobering divide. The worst parts of technology will harm the disadvantaged kids more than the advantaged kids, and the best parts of technology will help the advantaged kids more than hurt them.”
It’s a catch-22. While kids need boundaries to avoid the worst kinds of screen attachments, they also need tech know-how to live in an increasingly digital marketplace, says Gibbs. “What we view as a nuisance and burden on kids is also skill development.”
There are bright spots, amid all the handwringing. For one, the rising generation’s social skills are still intact, according to research by Gibbs and Douglas Downey, a sociology professor at The Ohio State University, which was published in the American Journal of Sociology in 2020. “We didn’t see any evidence that social skills have declined,” says Gibbs. “The fact that we found that was just baffling.”
It’s an example, he says, of how we may overestimate the negative while underestimating the positive. Similar alarms have sounded throughout history with each technological shift—even the advent of the written word shook Socrates. The concern? That working memory would go down the tubes when everyone had notes.
“It’s not hard to imagine new technologies making us worse,” continues Gibbs. “But there are some beautiful things about these technologies. If we appropriate them for the best kind of uses, the world becomes more connected, better. It just takes work—real community effort—to make sure these technologies are helping rather than harming.”
New Norms—and Tech—Ahead
That said, Gaskin does admit that he’s “hoping screens just go away.”
He’s not talking about reverting to a less tech-dependent existence; he’s talking about a near future that promises contact-lens computers. The screen will no longer be held or stationed in front of you; instead, you’ll actually wear it on your eyeball. And further down the line? Brain-machine interfaces, says Gaskin. You will just “Google something with your mind.”
Gaskin himself researches “wearables” and augmented reality—tech that gives surgeons three-dimensional holograms to reference while they work or virtually takes history classes to the actual colosseum.
Suffice it to say, Gaskin is a technology glass-half-full kind of guy. If we can get out of the digital quicksand that bogs us down, he maintains, the possibilities to “use technology to make life better for others” are endless.
Take the regular workday. Gaskin has published ideas on how to gamify stifling work, such as call-center jobs, through redesigned user interfaces that make it seem like time is passing faster. “That could make life better for a lot of employees,” he says.
It’s important, he says, to remember that technology is a blessing. “I can reach my daughter right now—instantly,” he notes. “And I can do genealogy in the grocery line.”
As for technology’s ills, there’s been a reckoning, says Gaskin. In the last five years or so, the idea of “ethical technology” has taken root. “The model for developers, up through 2015, was, ‘How do we maximize time and money spent on apps?’” says Gaskin. But a handful of startup founders, former social media execs, and Google designers have cried foul and rallied for change, founding time-tracking apps and organizations, such as the new nonprofit Center for Humane Technology. The center’s 2020 documentary, The Social Dilemma, has been viewed by millions on Netflix.
It’s no panacea, but it’s a start.
“Public outcry creates new norms,” says Gibbs, who says that norms—the spoken and unspoken rules we typically live by—always lag behind new technologies. “I don’t think the moral panic we’ve seen around screens is unjustified; it’s just doing what societies do with new technologies, which is to get really concerned really quickly and enact new oversight.”
Industry may not set boundaries without external forces, but perhaps, posits Alter, there’s a competitive edge to be found in making the 2.0 version of tech that helps consumers moderate their use (à la Gabb phone).
There’s also a nationwide conversation now surrounding how social media algorithms fuel salacious or fake news. “Social media is the last place reliable information gets disseminated but the first place that most people go,” says Gibbs. Law and policymakers are starting to listen.
It’s tempting to “hyper focus on the technology,” but perhaps more of the focus should rest on why these new technologies are so important to us, suggests Gibbs. At the end of the day, “they’re an exploitation of our longing for connectedness.”
“Generation Lonely: 10,000 Followers and No Friends”
That’s the title of the presentation BYU psychology and neuroscience professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad gave together with Dawn Fallik, professor at the University of Delaware, at the 2019 South by Southwest Conference and Festivals—twice, because the first session was standing room only.
Holt-Lunstad is a world-renowned expert on social connection; her research shows lacking social connection can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And frighteningly, she says Americans are in a loneliness crisis, with young adults perhaps facing the greatest risk (more than 70 percent of entry-level workers, per a 2020 report “Loneliness in the Workplace” from Cigna).
Undeniably, says Holt-Lunstad, “tech plays a role.”
Think about the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think every one of us has had a moment where FaceTime or Zoom felt like a poor substitute for being with someone we love in person,” she says. Our screens, she continues “have this allure in the sense that they facilitate connecting instantly with others, and yet often we don’t feel satisfied.”
That’s because we’re wired for proximity.
“Ultimately what we’ve learned is that humans are a social species,” she says. Throughout human history, we’ve needed to rely on others. Not so today, at least not in the same way. “We can order our groceries online now,” says Holt-Lunstad, whose own research shows that a variety of relationships—even our looser ties, like those found at the grocer—matter to our well-being. And when that proximity is lacking, our brains, in essence, respond as if under threat. “Sustained chronically, it can impact your health and even how long you live,” she observes.
Technology is so intertwined in society that one can’t function without it, but Holt-Lunstad says nothing—yet—can replace in-real-life (IRL) contact. “So far we haven’t found a way to trick our biology,” she says. That fundamental human need still needs to be fulfilled.”
Marie Kondo Your Device:
Here are ideas straight from the experts to help limit your screen use to the active, joy-sparking kind.
- Track your screen time on portable devices using a tool such as Screen Time (Apple) or Digital Wellbeing (Android). Set goals to lower that time and see how hard it is for you.
- Choose a “digital Sabbath,” a day on which the phone stays in airplane mode.
- Charge the phone somewhere other than the bedroom and keep it out of your room at night. Ample research shows that smartphone use in the bedroom (even if it’s not before bed) affects sleep. Beware: research by BYU psychology professor Chad Jensen shows that blue-light-reducing settings such as Night Shift (Apple) had no sleep-saving benefits. It’s better to not use the phone before bed.
- Create screen-free zones. “We don’t have screens in the car,” says James Gaskin, associate professor of information systems at BYU Marriott, “and we do that intentionally.”
- Set an alarm when using social media or playing video games.
- Treat email like a professor treats office hours: process email only a few times a day rather than letting each new message distract you.
- Put phones out of sight during conversations, performance reviews, or tests to maximize cognitive function.
- Take “cognitive breaks,” as Gaskin calls them—times to be still with your thoughts. Schedule them if necessary.
- Change the home screen on your phone to read “Why now?” or “What for?” Get online with a specific purpose.
- Talk to your kids regularly about cyberbullying, show them how two different media outlets cover the same story, and speak frequently about the Instagram highlight-reel effect so they know these are photo-op frames and not real life.
- Advocate for media literacy to be taught in schools—such classes are mandated in only nine states, says Coyne, but “education has got to be the primary root . . . to teach this generation how to be good consumers of media.”
Written by Brittany Rogers
Illustrations by Antonio Sortino
About the Author
Brittany Rogers worked as an editor at BYU Magazine for 13 years. She is now a freelance writer in American Fork, Utah, where she lives with her husband and three children.
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