Screaming about screen time?

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Screaming about screen time?

Are you hoping for a smart phone, computer or TV? Be honest. When the holiday spend-omatic finally staggers to a halt, you’re hoping to unwrap something with a screen. A phone. A tablet. A laptop. Even a TV. Or you’re planning to give a screen.

Very small child in diaper interacting with iPad

Photo: Ken Lee
Screens are barely a choice anymore. Like diapers, children know them from the start.

More likely both.

Screen time is rising, and so is overall “consumption” of media. As electronic, computers and networks gain dominance over our lives, we have to wonder how spending so much time staring at screens and pressing buttons is affecting brains and society.

See the Classroom Activity Page for this story.

We already know watching endless hours of TV is bad for your waistline. We know that people walk into walls or traffic while in the thrall of a handheld “device.” We have seen accidents big and small caused by drivers on mental “vacations” courtesy of wireless links to stuff way more important than nearby cars, bikes and walkers.
But how is the flood tide of communication devices affecting our emotional and social life? Is it, for example, rude or the “new normal” to keep glancing at your phone, no matter how deep in conversation? Is the art of face-to-face conversation itself threatened with extinction? Should email or text become the new normal for personal communication?

In other words, have the words and images on your screen supplanted the people in front of you?

Who uses media the most?

Children 8-10 use four hours less media per day than children 11-14. White children get four and a half hours less media than black and Hispanic children.

In 2010, children aged 11 to 14, black and Hispanic children, boys, and children whose parents didn’t complete college have higher media exposure.

Into the wild

These days, media statistics get out of date before, well, the ink is dry. In 2012, about 85 percent of American adults have a cellphone, and more than 56 percent of them use the phone to access the Internet, a good working definition for a smart phone1.

Screen etiquette

My parents explained that I should chew with my mouth closed and whisper in the library. But they never needed to tell me it’s rude to check a text message in a theater or listen to a voicemail at dinner, simply because I did not own a cell phone.

Now that 85 percent of 15-18 year-olds in the United States own cell phones, our etiquette must evolve. My screen manners include:

If I am in a dark room viewing a play, concert or movie, it is rude to illuminate a screen.

If I must type or read on-screen, I should not be walking, biking or driving.

If I am speaking with a person face-to-face, I should ignore my phone. If I must pay attention to it, I excuse myself first.

— Emily Eggleston, The Why Files project assistant, age 25

As scientists try to come to grips with the social and behavioral changes associated with the flood of smartphones, tablets and other digital media, there are snags.

The normal scientific tactic is to compare two things: The “treatment” group gets a drug, and the “control” group does not. One group uses the cellphone and iPod to their heart’s content, and another does not.

Except if you imagine asking people to park their phones for a few days, you’ll realize it’s difficult to draft a control group to study the impact of digital technology.

Last week, new data on the issue came from a study by David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. Strayer and colleagues found a 50 percent increase in creativity among people who camped in the wilderness for four days — without a single screen or device.

Strayer admits that the study2 could not distinguish between the effects of nature and cessation of communication technology, but both likely had benefits. “We anticipate that this [creativity] advantage comes from an increase in exposure to natural stimuli that are both emotionally positive and low-arousing and, a corresponding decrease in exposure to attention demanding technology [read: electronic gadgets], which regularly requires that we attend to sudden events, switch amongst tasks, maintain task goals, and inhibit irrelevant actions or cognitions.”

Bird's-eye-view of crowd in indoor arena seats, three people in a row are using smartphones.

2010, Jeff Miller, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Students during a meeting where Chancellor Carolyn Martin welcomed first-year students to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Is she referencing a mobile app for finding the way around campus, or are they practicing for four years of lecture hall (dis)engagement?

Strayer says that when he takes students away from their familiar surroundings for a wilderness experience, “they express apprehension about not being able to check email, but after two or three days, that anxiety is gone. When they start coming back, some of them sound kind of resigned to having to plug back in. They feel they have to do it but it’s not something they necessarily look forward to doing.”

Your friend the computer

In a series of experiments, Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University, has found that people treat computers like, well, people. “People use the same rules, heuristics, have the same social expectations when interacting with computers and people.”

In the 1990s, Nass did a “politeness“test of people working with a computer. When the machine they were using asked, “‘How helpful or effective am I?’, they said nicer things [because] the computer asked about itself,” Nass says. “Similarly, if you ask me about yourself, I would say nicer things about you, and the same applies to a computer.

“Most people thought we were crazy when we first did this,” Nass says. “Now it has become almost commonplace, because people have observed these interactions themselves.”

Media use, grades and happiness

Statistically significant differences between light and heavy media-using adolescents: heavy media users get worse grades, get into more trouble, and feel sad, bored or unhappy more often.

Adolescents who are heavy media users receive lower grades. Though both groups reported a similar number of friends, media-heavy teens are more often bored and unhappy.

Voice is more powerful than text, and that is another reason for the growing emotional power of devices, Nass says. “Voice dramatically increases the strength of the social response, both positively and negatively. Also things you can hold in your hand have a certain intimacy, there are cultures where people hold idols of gods in their hands, you have a closer relationship that cues very strong responses.”

Mobile devices held in the pocket gather body heat, “and many people carry the mobile device near the heart, in the breast pocket,” Nass adds, both of which enhance our close emotional relationships to our gadgets.

How close? 90 percent of people aged 18 to 29 who have a cell phone sleep with it on or near the bed.

Changes in media use, 2004 – 2009

Adolescents increased their daily media minutes: listening to music +47, watching TV +38, using computers for entertainment +27.

From 2004 to 2009, the amount adolescents watch, listen, and play digitally increased. In 2009, they watched television an average of 38 minutes more per day and read print content 5 minutes less.

Am I distracted, or am I multitasking?

The issue of distraction arises in several digital-media contexts. Texters, tweeters and phoners who interrupt conversations are bound to annoy traditionalists, who tend to value personal communication and disdain distraction. But distraction also arises during multitasking, the growing tendency to digest digital devices in duos, triplets or more.

Computer multitasking

Almost half of 7th-12th graders are doing something else while using a computer. Only 13 percent say they never do anything else while using a computer.

Teens and preteens aren’t piloting screens solo. More than 80 percent say they multitask while using a computer, often with another screen-based device.

Distraction, says Nass, “is extremely bad. People who are chronically distracted are actually worse off, even when they are trying to pay attention. It’s genuinely bad, in the short and long run.”

In a test3 of the ability to filter out unwanted stimuli, Nass and colleagues found that heavy multitaskers had surprising difficulty focusing on the task, ignoring the distractions, and excluding memories that were irrelevant to the task at hand. “People who chronically multitask are bad at every aspect of thinking,” Nass concludes.

But doesn’t everybody multitask with the growing glut of media? No, says Nass. “Many people do one thing at a time. Everybody doesn’t text and check email at the same time; some do it in sequence, and the people who don’t multitask have much healthier brains.”

We asked Nass what goes through his head when he heads across campus and sees drooping heads supervising tapping fingers. “It’s not just the occasional collision, he said. “We are very worried.”

The danger extends to the emotional realm, Nass says. “We showed among girls aged 8 to 12 that the lack of face-to-face communication is associated with broad range of measures of emotional development. They feel less normal, have more friends who are a bad influence, have less sleep, have a lot of problems.”

Nass and his co-authors found that use of video, online communication and media multitasking “were consistently associated with a range of negative socio-emotional outcomes.”

The study also found that face-to-face communication was “consistently associated with a range of positive socio-emotional outcomes,” Nass says4

Strayer agrees that “a heavy dose of media multitasking, and teens do a ton of it, is having negative, and potentially long-term effect in social and development trajectories of youth. They may not be learning how to express or read emotion, to interact with other people. That’s how we become a civil society. If the norms for interaction are eroded, it’s unclear what you get.”

Impact of cellphones

69% of adults say they're more productive while sitting in traffic and waiting in line because of their mobiles. 94% say it's easier to stay in touch with people they care about. 43% say their mobile makes it harder to focus on a task.

Cell owners like convenience, connecting with friends and family, and getting emergency help. “More owners say the phone is a time saver than a time waster, and many are devoted to their devices,” the Pew Internet Project reported. Here’s a shocker: they dislike always being reachable, poor reception and paying the phone bill!
A young boy and girl seated on a couch, huddling over an iPad.

The wildly successful iPad added another category of handheld gadget to the pantheon of digital distraction.

The only constant is change

But communication technology does have its advantages, says David Williamson Shaffer, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He notes that the low-income people in the United States and elsewhere who are rapidly adopting smart phones are getting many of the advantages of computers at a much lower cost.

Digital gadgets entertain kids on long car journeys and visits to museums and historic sites, Shaffer says. “I took my kids to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island [New York]. On the phone, they could look up all sorts of information that went beyond the audio tour, and they could do it in the moment.”

At any rate, we should be used to change, Shaffer says. “It’s a myth that the technology with which we communicate have ever been stable. There is constant change, whether it’s 10,000, 1,000, or 100 or 1 years ago. That having been said, the rate of change is not constant, and the rate matters, in part because our mind is constantly rewiring itself to deal with stimuli. Neurons themselves are in a competition, and the connections you use get reinforced, and the connections you don’t use are pruned away.”

Text vs. email vs. phone

Text if the exchange will be short.

Email if the exchange does not need immediate attention or lengthy explanation.

Phone if the subject is sensitive or requires immediate communication.

-Emily Eggleston

But the rate of biological adaptation may not be fast enough, Shaffer says. “If that social rate of change starts to exceed the rate at which we can adapt biologically, we wind up in a stressful situation.”

Different ages prefer different modes of communication, Shaffer notes. People in their 60s, “would probably start with face to face, then pick up the phone, then use email, maybe at the end go to a handwritten letter. If you ask somebody 25 years older, that order would be different. Similarly, it would be different if you ask kids on campus: the first answer is always text. If you or I feel uncomfortable in the mobile world, that does not tell me much,” says Shaffer. “We did not grow up with it.”


View of restaurant with at least 8 TV screens visible including huge one over bar.

Photo: wsh1266
The ESPN Sports Bar at Walt Disney World doesn’t stint on TV screens. “How do you like your burger cooked? Hey! I said, how do you like your burger cooked??”

Wean from the screen?

Strayer, who also studies the impact of mobile technology in cars, says “We are experimenting on ourselves in a tightening spiral, and it’s not clear what the outcome will be. Technology is good if it facilitates our quality of life, but when the phone rings and it triggers some dopamine response in the brain’s reward circuit, that means we are somewhat addicted to technology. Whether or not it totally meets criteria for addiction is an academic exercise, but if you are sending 500 or 1,000 texts a day, and sleeping with the phone under your pillow, that is an example of behavior that is troubling.”


Person at desk with smartphone in hand, tablet propped on knee, and laptop on desk.

Increasingly, it’s not a question of screen or no-screen, it’s a question of how many screens and which grabs our attention.

We wondered if this is just the kvetching of codgers, doing what old people do best: Telling the young how to run their lives. Is this the same type of whining that condemned the Beatles and jazz?

Shaffer, for example, is not fazed by students who eyeball their personal screens during a college lecture. “I’d say it raises the bar for the level of engagement that some activity needs to provide in order to hold attention. I think that’s good. Since the first gesture that had symbolic meaning, we have been creatures whose minds are not defined by the boundary of our skin.”

But when we ruminated about the young-old divide to Nass, he responded, “The question is are there measurable effects, and how do we feel about them? People do show negative social and emotional effects” from media multitasking. “We could say, ‘we are okay with that, things are changing, what was important will not be important.’ But if we are talking about our ability to focus, even when not multitasking, the ability to filter out irrelevant information, to manage working memory, to switch tasks, all those are impaired in heavy multitaskers.”

None of which is likely to pry the mobile phone from the grasp of a teen-ager or young adult. The modern, always-in-touch tech is just too thrilling. But we’ll certainly keep our ears open for more studies of how these technologies are changing societies and brains.

— David J. Tenenbaum

Terry Devitt, editor; Emily Eggleston, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, Summer Tracking Survey, August 7-September 6, 2012.
  2. Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings, Ruth Ann Atchley et al, PLoS ONE, 12 Dec 2012
  3. Cognitive control in media multitaskers, Eyal Ophir et al, PNAS, vol. 106 no. 37, pp. 15583–15587, 2009.
  4. Media Use, Face-to-Face Communication, Media Multitasking, and Social Well-Being Among 8- to 12-Year-Old Girls, Roy Pea et al, Developmental Psychology, 2012, Vol. 48, No. 2, 327–336.