Friday Fave: Digital Distraction – too much screen time makes you…

Fill in the gap… Too much screen time makes you… 1) dumber, 2) an addict, 3) reduces memory capacity, 4) gives you poor eyesight, 5) a hunch back or mobile neck, 6) anti-social… Shall I go on? Every week I see another article (on my screen) about the impact of too much screen time, the distractions caused by constant notifications, the impact to children’s learning capabilities, the stress levels caused by emails at work… and much more.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a meet-up: The Neuroscience of Digital Distractions. It sounded really interesting… but then… soon plummeted into a session about addiction and how bad digital tools (mainly smartphones) are for us. I immediately react against these sort of claims – I don’t subscribe to the addiction school of thought. Some people may have habits they find difficult to manage or change – but that’s not addiction. And certainly our smartphone usage can become a habit that is difficult to control and the impact of these habits are still being studied. (I recall very similar conversations about watching TV). But in this session, we were expected to all agree how bad are phones are – I felt like I was joining an AA meeting. Where I particularly take exception is when we’re provided with causation of our behaviours that is based on popular psychology or neuro-pop-science with flimsy evidence based on anecdotes or personal experiences. The descriptions of hormonal effects of using our phones – the dopamine influence or reward system that causes addiction was actually describing the symptoms related to a heightened state of alert – that’s adrenaline, not dopamine. We were then provided with solutions, ways we could fix our addiction – including using a de-stressing app called Calm App!! But wait… it’s an app.. it’s on my phone.. that I’m already addicted to?

But I’ve deviated from the article I’m recommending. This article in Wired inserts a more rational, contextual opinion to the mainstream media scaremongering and neuro-pop-science about screen time. Rather than focusing on how much time we’re spending on our screens, the studies should be looking at how we spend the time, what are we using our devices for. The recent study from the Oxford Internet Institute believes they’ve identified how the data collected has led to the interpretation of overuse. The amount of data collected from surveys and analytics is enormous and the process of evaluating and analysing the quantities leaves it too open for inference to support a hypothesis. The key finding on the association between screen time and our well being:

“They’re tiny. Way too tiny to warrant the claims you’ve read that we’re all addicted to our devices, that excessive screen time is the new smoking, or that smartphones have led large swaths of society to the brink of the greatest mental health crisis in decades.”

How do we validate research and avoid further misinterpretations? The article introduces a new research body: the Social Science One – part of Harvard University – that has been approved to give researchers access to data inside Facebook and publish findings without Facebook’s approval. (Can you imagine trying to negotiate that??!!). The essential contribution here will be a framework for research – ethical, independent and secure. A research framework that will allow repeatable, comparative studies avoiding assumptions and interpretations to suit various stakeholders’ agendas.

So the next time you feel the need to look at your screen, remember, there really is very little evidence to suggest you’re addicted. And, you may also be using your device for worthwhile purposes! (See you online 😉 )


This post is part of a weekly Friday Faves series contributed by the team at Ripple Effect Group. Read the entire series and collections from other team members here.