Debates around screen time are not uncommon in recent press releases, media reports, policy reports and indeed the academic literature. Mostly, these refer to how screen time is harmful to children and young people, and as such, is feeding into concerns about young people’s mental health.
Worryingly, it is much of the speculation and panic surrounding this which often enters the public rhetoric, with many commentators in this area urging for more academic rigour behind these claims. But despite the plethora of reports dedicated to this debate, we know surprisingly little about how screen time is related to aspects of mental well-being.
The term ‘screen time’ is a rather vague and an unhelpful way to conceptualise our engagement with screens. Many researchers have challenged this conception and have instead scholars have proposed ‘screen time’ is best considered in respect of the 3 Cs: content (what is being engaged with), context (how we are interacting with users of media) and child (understanding who the specific users are).
This is significantly more useful as it recognises the range of factors which relate to how we are engaging with screens and what the likely psychological impacts are. This is particularly important given that debates about screen time are often conflated with those relating to social media. Of course, social media is a popular screen time activity for many young people, but this should be considered as an independent candidate for study within this area.
Given that much academic research to date has theorised ‘screen-time’ in its rather generic sense, it is unclear how this relates to engagement with specific types of technology (smartphones, tablets, TV, PC) and perhaps more importantly, different online activities (homework, gaming, social networking, listening to music, watching films or video content).
Theoretically, these varying activities would be expected to hold differential impacts on aspects of well-being, especially when these include both leisure and work-related pursuits.
As well as ‘screen time’ often lacking specificity, the way it is measured can be brought under scrutiny. A recent paper titled ‘Do smartphone usage scales predict behaviour?‘ came to the conclusion that most research relying on people’s self-reported behaviours around using screens are likely to be inaccurate.
Most psychometric scales which attempt to measure habitual behaviour relating to technologies do not correlate adequately with objective metrics obtained from Apple’s screen time application, for example. Further evidence supports this, in finding that specifically when exploring smartphone usage, people generally grossly under-estimate how often they check their smartphone on a daily basis.
This highlights a pertinent issue in light of the fact that the vast majority of work in this area obtains users’ self-reported data rather than garnering objective digital data. So, this leads to the question; do we actually know anything (accurate) about how so-called ‘screen time’ is related to aspects of mental well-being. The answer is, probably not.
Dr Linda Kaye is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Edge Hill University. Her research is in the area of cyberpsychology.