Is Your Screen Time Eating Up Your Free Time?

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How Did We Get Here?

In the classic Sociology book ‘Bowling Alone’, Robert Putnam makes the compelling argument that social capital (reciprocal connections among people) has been in a steady decline ever since its peak in 1964.

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By the year 2000, the average American was 58 percent less likely to attend a club meeting than an individual only 25 years earlier. This may not seem like much of a big deal until you realise that regularly participating in a social group halves your risk of dying in the next 12 months.

It’s not just the joining of groups that has changed either. We are 45% less likely to invite friends around to our place, and 33% less likely to have a dinner around the table with the whole family. We are also 40% less likely to join a bowling league, which is surprisingly the number one participation sport in the U.S. (Putnam, 2000).

This overall decline in social capital has also resulted in a loss of mutual trust. From 1966 to 1998, the proportion of Americans who endorsed trusting the federal government “only some of the time” or “almost never” rose from 30% to 75%. Without this trust in others, we no longer know who to turn to for help and support when needed.

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What’s Caused The Problem?

Putnam believed that some of the main culprits for the loss of social capital were:

  1. the changes in family structure, with more people living alone, in a single parent home or deciding not to have children.
  2. suburban sprawl and longer commutes, with less time, energy and interest for leisure and social activities once all the commuting is taken into account.
  3. A generational effect, where older generations (pre-boomers) are consistently more civic and socially engaged than the Baby Boomers, who are more civic and socially engaged than generation X’ers, who are more civic and socially engaged than Millennials, or at least they were at the time of the books printing (except for hours spent volunteering on an individual basis).
  4. technology, especially television, which has lead to the privatisation of leisure time. The more people watch TV, the less time they spend involved in social capital type activities. Putnam believed that TV may have contributed up to 40% of the overall decline in social capital since 1965.

How Much Time do People Spend on Technology?

In the 2013 documentary ‘The Mask You Live In’, some pretty scary statistics are presented about how much technology is consumed by male children and teenagers. In the U.S., the average boy:

  • spends 40 hours a week watching television, including sports and movies.
  • spends 15 hours per week playing video games.
  • spends 2 hours per week watching porn, with 21% of young men using porn daily.

The Potential Consequences of Excessive Technology Use

Although some people write off TV, video games and the internet as harmless forms of entertainment that help to keep kids safe, out of trouble and off the streets, they do come with their own risks and potential consequences. The following data was also presented in ‘The Mask You Live In’ documentary:

  • 31% of young males report feeling addicted to the video games they play. 
  • 50% of parents don’t monitor the content or ratings of video games, even though 90% of games rated appropriate for children over 10 contain violence.
  • By the age of 18, the average male has seen 200,000 acts of violence on screen, including 40,000 murders.
  • Exposure to violent media may:
    • lead to children becoming less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others,
    • lead to children becoming more fearful of the world around them, and
    • lead to children behaving in more aggressive and harmful ways towards others.
  • Exposure to pornography:
    • increases sexual aggression by 22%.
    • increases the acceptance of rape myths (that women desire sexual violence) by 31%.

The typical response by the content producers to statistics like these is that the content we watch doesn’t have an impact on our behaviour.

BUT if this was the case, WHY do we have a multi-billion dollar advertising industry?

IF media images don’t have an effect on people’s subsequent behaviour, WHY would commercials and product placement even exist?

WHY would companies be happy to pay millions for 30-second Super Bowl commercials?

It is ONLY BECAUSE the COMPANIES paying for the commercials and the MARKETERS producing the commercials HAVE EVIDENCE that what we see does have an impact on our beliefs and behaviours!

If a 30-second commercial can change our attitude or behaviours towards something, why won’t witnessing 200,000 acts of violence before the age of 18?

WHO IS REALLY BEING FOOLED? The general public, or the multi-billion dollar corporations, industries and governments?

The Problem of Smart Phones and Digital Streaming

Since 2013, the problem of technology has only gotten worse, and it is now eating into even more of our leisure time, as shown in this clear depiction by Adam Alter in his 2017 TED talk:

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The New York University psychologist presented data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to show that sleep, working, commuting and activities of daily living (cleaning, showering, eating etc.) have all taken up a similar amount of time over the past 10 years.

What has changed, as shown in the red (data from the mobile app ‘Moment’), is how much time we spend looking at screens. It used to be only minutes in 2007, but now our phones, laptops and tablet usage is taking up the majority of our free time, and dramatically cutting into our social and leisure time, much like TV had previously done in the second half of the 20th century.

Unlike TV, this has not been by accident, with the smartest minds of today often focusing on how to attract and sustain our attention on their games, their sites and their apps. This is all brilliantly explored by Alter in his recent book ‘Irresistible’, which I put in my top 20 countdown of my favourite books of the last five years.

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A 2017 review by Brendan Meagher on the Australian Psychological Society Website introduced me to the term ‘problematic mobile phone use’. This is “an inability to regulate one’s use of the mobile phone, which has negative consequences in daily life” (Billieux, 2012).

Australia is now fourth in the world in terms of smartphone usage. 84% of us have a mobile phone, with 85% of teenagers and young adults exceeding 2 hours of screen use on their phones every day. The average for all Australian mobile phone users is 2.5 hours a day, which adds up to 38 days per year. We check something on our phone 30 separate times each day, and 45% of Australians now say that they couldn’t live without their phones (Meagher, 2017). Possibly the scariest statistic is that 42% of Australians over 18 still use their phones while driving, despite this being linked with a much higher risk of car accidents (Rumschlag, 2015).

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Consequences of Excessive Mobile Phone Use

Mobile phone overuse can be likened to an addiction, with similar symptoms to substance use problems, including tolerance, withdrawal, and daily-life disturbance (Kwon et al., 2013).

Adverse consequences include increased risk of aggression, sleep disturbance (Yang et al., 2010) and physical health problems (Lee & Seo, 2014).

It can also negatively impact relationships, lead to fewer social interactions across a week, and impair academic performance (Kuss & Griffiths, 2011).

Is Your Mobile Phone Use Problematic?

If you are unsure, Meagre recommends considering the following questions:

  • Do you think you spend too much time using your mobile phone?
  • Has your mobile phone use caused problems in a relationship?
  • Do people say that you spend too much time on your mobile phone?
  • Does the time you spend on your mobile phone stop you from doing other tasks?
  • Have you tried to cut down your mobile phone use?
  • Have you used your mobile phone while driving or crossing a road?

Could You Cut Down Your Screen Time?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions like I did, then you may benefit from tracking your usage and seeing how much time you actually do spend on your phone actively doing something.

I bought the full version of the app ‘Moment’, as recommended by Adam Alter. For the first week, I didn’t try to change how much I used my phone to get an accurate baseline. My average was 1 hour, 48 minutes of screen time a day. Less than the national average, but still not how I really wanted to spend my spare time.

I then took on the ‘Bored and Brilliant Challenge’ on the ‘Moment’ app for the following week and set myself the goal of less than 1 hour of screen time each day.

The ‘Bored and Brilliant Challenge’ was first developed by Manoush Zomorodi after she realised just how long it had been since she had last felt bored, thanks to always being able to look at her phone whenever she had a spare second. She also realised that without this time of boredom, she had very little time to let her mind just wander, which was often when she had her best creative ideas. She then decided to set a challenge on her podcast for her listeners, which became the focus of her subsequent book of the same title.519sJeZEbOL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_

  • On day 1, the aim was just to observe my phone usage.
  • On day 2, the aim was to keep my phone out of reach and put it in my bag instead of my pocket.
  • On day 3, the aim was to not take any photos, which was quite easy for me.
  • On day 4, the aim was to delete an app that I used more than I wanted to. This led to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn all being deleted from my phone.
  • On day 5, I took a fake-cation, and put my phone on airplane mode so that I had fewer distractions during the day.
  • On day 6, I aimed to observe things that I normally would have missed if I was glued to my phone, especially whilst I was on public transport.
  • On day 7, I tried to make something creative. This consisted of me cooking a nice meal for dinner, and it didn’t taste too bad either.

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As the above-left data shows, I managed to pick up my phone three times less per day. My baseline of 21 times per day was 9 less than the average Australian already, but I’m glad that I was able to reduce it further to 18 times per day.

The second picture is more fascinating to me. My phone use took up 7% of my waking life across the challenge. This was a big drop from 12% of my waking life the week before.

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The picture on the left indicates an opening of 4 hours and 26 minutes across the week for me, with a new average of only 70 minutes per day. Not quite at my 60 minutes per day maximum goal yet, but well on the way.

As shown in the data above on the right, the average person who takes on the ‘Bored and Brilliant Challenge’ creates 58 minutes more free time each day by cutting down their phone usage. It would be great to know how they used their spare time instead.

Other Suggestions for Cutting Down Screen Time

  • Book in social outings or join a club or sports team. Exercise is also great for both mental and physical health, so combining socialising with exercise is recommended.
  • Develop a list of other non-screen activities that you may enjoy and can do regularly.
  • Stop channel surfing on your TV – figure out which shows you want to watch ahead of time and record them. This increases the enjoyability of the programs you watch and cuts down how much time you spend watching TV as you can fast forward through commercials.
  • If you use a TV streaming site such as Stan or Netflix, decide if there is a program you really want to watch and how long you want to watch before you switch it on. An alarm or reminder can be set to help manage binge watching.
  • Stop leaving your TV on in the background or switching it on as soon as you get home. Listening to most music is likely to be more relaxing than watching TV.
  • Install the app or plugin ‘Freedom’ on your computer. This helps you to block certain sites that you can waste a lot of time on, and can make setting limits for yourself easier.

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Conclusion

Hopefully, with everything discussed here, you can now see the potential pitfalls associated with excessive use of technological devices, especially those involving bright screens.

If you are feeling rushed, always complaining about being busy, spending too much time on your phone, or wanting to find more time for social and leisure activities, I encourage you to seriously consider the role that technology plays in your life. If there is an area where it is becoming problematic or causing you distress, I recommend implementing any of the above suggestions or challenges to see what difference it can make in your life.

If your screen usage is an unhealthy habit that feels too strong to change by yourself, a session with a Clinical Psychologist who is experienced in treating addictions could provide additional assistance and support.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

 

37 thoughts on “Is Your Screen Time Eating Up Your Free Time?

  1. A great read, Damon; well done. Stats don’t lie, as such, though I believe I may be one of those whose social life has actually improved with a little ‘technology’. From zero to some use of a smartphone and a PC since 2011, I believe it has enhanced my life rather than the opposite.
    I do, however, take all of your points as valid for the majority of individuals; particularly the ‘addictive’ nature smartphones have raised amongst the general population. It would be an extraordinary day not to see people walking, sitting or standing without their main concentration upon a screen…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Carolyn. Yes definitely. Technology can both help us and hinder us. It just depends on how it is used. The problem is app and game developers try to get and maintain our attention as much as possible, and in many cases it works. I’m not trying to go without screens completely, but I do want to make sure that they are being used in ways that are helpful to me

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I appreciate what you are saying, Damon. For the young, especially, there is the possibility of being hoodwinked by those with the thought of profit. My three grandsons are examples of this, particularly the youngest. His mother has had to be quite vigilant to ensure his safety and his pocket.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh man, you always have such great book suggestions, I can’t even keep up with it – thank you!
    I was thinking yesterday about the specific problem “less socialization” and what popped in my head (maybe influenced by the research I’m doing) is that it seems that generations no longer pass their legacy as we did long long long time ago around the fire – so many people lack the skills of storytelling, live conversations / debates without ‘phone’ distractions, etc. Some can argue that we can do that through social media, internet, etc, but I think those communication channels lack some important social learning aspects, which are very important regarding processing, reflection, comparison of experiences and information, etc. The other day I was at the pub with two more people and as soon as I was left alone with one of them the other person immediately picked the phone and I was there staring the ceiling, shocked. Now you could say I’m boring, but I’m sure that was not the case – the person simply felt awkward and did not know how to deal with one-on-one conversations. I don’t blame so much the ‘screen time’ but the lack of opportunities to develop ‘live’ social skills, which communities / groups / clubs used to provide us.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you. I’d be interested to hear more about your research. I do agree that live social skills are going out the window, and diminished opportunities in our community are part of the problem. What has caused the diminished opportunities were explored a lot in Putnam’s book, but seeing that it was published in 2000 I’d love to look at how the trends have trained since then. It’d be fascinating to see the impact that smartphones and social media have.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks! I have been finding amazing how different variables have been shaping and giving birth to different generations.

        My research is on age diversity and age discrimination at work. I am now starting to look at differences at work across generations, but my consultancy experience has given me the feeling that inter-generational communication can be a key to many issues – regarding ‘live’ vs ‘online’ communication, Forbes seems to predict that Gen Z will start valuing face-to-face communications more. I think it’s good news.

        Related to all this, you may find some interest on my colleague Lazaros’ research on using Facebook and time perception (https://www.financialexpress.com/industry/technology/facebook-use-impairs-your-perception-of-time-study/542762/) and this article that just came out on whether decreasing social time influences subjective wellbeing: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092656618300369

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Because the addictive nature of the screen is based on intermittent reinforcement (the most powerful psychological inducement to sustaining behavior), people who want to reduce their screen time will need to build some operant conditioning into their new routines, and provide themselves with quick and meaningful rewards for screen-free behavior that will exceed the strength of the screen-based reinforcement. For most people, simply trying to abstain is not going to work; therefore, it would be more effective to have the last two bullet points in your “Other Suggestions…” section appear at the top of the list, with the multiple suggestions that are mentioned in the penultimate point itemized beneath the screen-free list idea. There also need to be suggestions for immediate rewards, because the benefits of socialization and exercise are generally delayed, and deferred gratification will not have the strength of immediate gratification. This is the kind of help that personal consultation with an experienced mental health practitioner should provide, but many people still resist the notion of getting professional help for personal problems (that stigma is taking a long time to go away), or they can’t afford to go there (if they’re domiciled in a market-based healthcare economy).

    Liked by 2 people

  4. If the average male has witnessed 40,000 acts of murder by the age of 18, it’s little wonder why we see public shootings in the news daily. Putting aside the other obvious good points you made in your post, this alone is enough cause for concern. Thanks for sharing.Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Also, even though my blog is concerned with assistive technology for the vision impaired, I wholeheartedly agree that more time to process the massive amount of input we take in daily is a very healthy thing. I would like tho reblog this if you have no objection.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Reblogged this on Voice for Vision and commented:
    This is not in my usual purview, but I think it’s important so I wanted to share it. Dr. Ashworth makes some very good points about our desensitization to violence and about the time we spend on screens of our various devices.
    Though I often write about using technology to overcome low vision, I think it’s important to say that we also have to give our brain time to process the input we give it . Otherwise, we lose the ability to make good use of the info. What do you think?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Holy mackerel, I needed a week to read this, and I’ll try assimilating it next month, but now I’m too tired. And that even includes group sex, when guys always have time for sex.
    I used to tell bloggers I’d check back with them, as I get a couple different ones every week, but you’ve exhausted me.
    You get one more chance, but I’m not giving you my whole weekend, unless I can read the condensed version.

    But the tale is true, as I’ve recorded these same results. Wickedly accurate post.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Another great post. Important to give the mind a break. I stopped watching TV over 10 years ago. I was fed up of the repetitions and constant noise. Going to sleep with the TV on is definitely a NO. The emissions from the TV is very harmful to the brain and constant noise. I have cut down on the phone usage removed applications and switch off for that extra peace.

    As I am unable to buy books at the moment I do spend time reading blogs of interest to me this is extra time spent on laptop screen otherwise it is minimal.

    I was quite shocked at the high percentage of children viewing inappropriate media. This is down to parental control.

    The high percentage of adult viewing inappropriate media is a statement of how the morals of life have dropped.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you. That’s super impressive to have gone without TV for 10 years. I was tempted to sell my TV at the end of last year, but decided to just give up Netflix instead. It has helped me really cut down my TV time, which has helped me to be more active and social. Great points!

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Students are not giving time to their Studies due to TV, Mobile Phones, and Apps. They have no interest in Studies and future technology. The number of students addicting to this increases day by day. Parents should take steps to abolish such culture and minimizing the use of Phones.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you very much for the intense and very valuable information on the use of the latest technology. I am happy to say, that I belong to the so called older generation, where I am used to reading printed books rather than on the I net and more on out door activities than watching TV. I do have a mobile phone and I do have Face Book ect on it, I spend the minimum time on them and I am unable even to think of using the phone while I am driving. Yes as you say, most of the present society does come into this category of over using the latest gadgets extensively, and spending their time more that it is healthy for them. I also observe that there is a certain percentage of the young crowd that is coming up, to be aware of the health hazards of all this, and engaging in outdoor activities like gardening and things to do with protecting the environment. There are many programs where I am in Australia, where people are encouraged to walk in parks and nature trails, bird watching and many other outdoor activities. As a parent myself, I believe its the duty of the parents to guide their children and if the responsible citizens also make some extra effort to guide the general society, people will be more aware of the health hazards and able to divert themselves to more healthier alternatives. However as you say some would need to look into their life styles and seek out help from certain professionals if necessary. Thank you again for this very informative article and please excuse me if I have made any mistakes in giving out my views on your article.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You are very welcome. I am not up to your professional standard, hence I did not want you to feel offended in anyway by what I have written. As you are aware I am a survivor of long term depression and most of your articles are quite advanced, and I am learning a lot from what you write. I am thankful for all your information as well 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Some interesting (and worrying) stats here, Damon. I spend a great deal of time blogging of course, but living in a small village, it actually allows me to communicate in ways that would otherwise be impossible.
    Thanks for following my blog, which is much appreciated.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

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