Screen time for the masses – an evolution of the human-technology dynamic or cause for concern: how can Cyberpsychology help us resolve this modern dilemma?
By Dave Harley, Julie Morgan and Hannah Frith, authors of Cyberpsychology as Everyday Digital Experience across the Lifespan
According to Ofcom, the UK media regulator, we now spend longer in front of our digital screens than we do asleep, spending on average, 8 hours 41 minutes a day in front of the TV, working on our computers, engaging with social media or playing video games. Even the technophobes amongst us find it difficult to avoid interacting with digital screens at some point in their day, whether it be getting cash from a bank or paying for groceries. It seems that humans have become ‘digital by default’ and screen time has become a measure of our digital dependency. When the majority of people we encounter in our lives are glued to digital screens should we just accept this as ‘the new normal’ or be concerned about this emerging trend? Recently the World Health Organisation (2019) advised parents to manage their children’s screen time if they did not want it to adversely affect their development. Meanwhile other media sources including the BBC have suggested that such advice is just moral panic so how do we reconcile such contradictory advice?
Cyberpsychology is an area of psychological research that is concerned with understanding our relationship with digital technology and assessing its human value. As such it has become invaluable in making sense of such everyday matters as screen time. Cyberpsychology studies so far have shown that there is a relationship between increasing screen time and negative social and psychological impacts such as depression, anxiety, loneliness and low self-esteem (e.g. Twenge, 2019). However it is not clear whether digital dependency is a cause or an effect of prior wellbeing issues. We need to dig a bit deeper into what screen time actually is in order to really understand the nature of this relationship. ‘Screen time’ is a catch-all phrase that tells us little about why some people excessively engage in screen-based activities, or the interpersonal and situational factors that may trigger such a response.
For a start it matters what kind of person is using the screen. A gregarious, outgoing person will employ digital screens in very different ways to someone who is shy or depressed and research shows that extraverts often fair better when it comes to using digital opportunities for supporting their social life in the real world (Peter et al, 2005). It also matters what people are using their screens for. We need to acknowledge the myriad of different activities that now constitute digital interaction and the underlying motivations that may guide those interactions. The immersive aspects of video games provide very different challenges to psychosocial wellbeing than paying the bills or doing homework online. Research shows that activities which involve socialising with others online are likely to be more beneficial than just posting and comparing oneself to strangers on social media or just passively consuming media content in an isolated way (Yang et al, 2016; Verduyn et al, 2015). It is the nature of the relationships enabled through digital technology that is likely to determine any opportunities for human flourishing. Where digital interaction signals greater engagement with life, with challenging oneself or relating to other people rather than as a distraction from life demands we are likely to see more positive effects on wellbeing.
Finally it matters what is going on beyond the screen – how does the immediate social environment frame digital engagement? What is going on in a person’s everyday life that means they may turn to the screen as a source of social support or as a coping mechanism? Rather than focusing exclusively on screen time as an indicator of wellbeing we need to ask how it fits into a person’s whole life. How does screen time match up to the amount of quality time spent with friends and family, or time spent in nature or involved in physical activities; things we know are important for healthy development and wellbeing.
An important role for Cyberpsychology in the coming years will be to increase our understanding of the subtleties of ‘screen time’; to differentiate not only what devices and apps people are using and for how long but also to understand what motivates people to spend time on their digital screens. Do we use digital technology as an escape from everyday concerns or as a route to self-expression and social connection? How much of our digital interactions are habitual or life-affirming? Cyberpsychology can provide a perspective that moves beyond abstinence as a simple solution to screen time concerns and provide a notion of ‘digital wellbeing’ that acknowledges the everyday significance of digital interactions whilst also proposing a more mindful and beneficial engagement with the digital world.
Dave Harley is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton, UK. His broad research areas cover Cyberpsychology and Human Computer Interaction with a particular interest in older people’s use of digital technologies. In 2016 he completed a Culture and Communities Network+ research project looking at older people’s experiences of online community.
Julie Morgan is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton, UK. Her research focuses on autobiographical memory, social anxiety and the development of social fears. She has also published research exploring the social dimension of nature-connectedness within mental health recovery.
Hannah Frith is Principal Lecturer at the University of Brighton, UK. Her research centres on sexuality, embodiment and subjectivity including constructions of sexual consent/non-consent, orgasm and sexual pleasure, and the meaning of sexual practices. She previously authored Orgasmic Bodies published by Palgrave in 2015.
Peter, J., Valkenburg, P. M., & Schouten, A. P. (2005). Developing a model of adolescent friendship formation on the Internet. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 8(5), 423-430.
Twenge, J., M. (2019) More Time on Technology, Less Happiness? Associations Between Digital-Media Use and Psychological Well-Being. Current Directions in Psychological Science 28(4), 372–379
Verduyn, P., Lee, D. S., Park, J., Shablack, H., Orvell, A., Bayer, J., ... & Kross, E. (2015). Passive Facebook usage undermines affective well-being: Experimental and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(2), 480.
World Health Organization (2019). Guidelines on physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep for children under 5 years of age. World Health Organization. Available online: https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/311664 accessed 29/8/19.
Yang, C. C. (2016). Instagram use, loneliness, and social comparison orientation: Interact and browse on social media, but don't compare. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 19(12), 703-708.