Screen Time: Is it Bad for You?

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With the percentage of the population that owns a smartphone increasing at a surprising rate (from 35% to over 70% in six years), electronic devices are consuming more and more of Americans’ lives. Some have concerns as to the effects phones have on our productivity and health, and how much of our lives are taken up by our phones.

A 2016 study showed that Americans collectively check their phones nine billion times per day. It’s the first thing 18% of people do when they wake up in the morning, and another 25% check within five minutes. Similarly, 15% of Americans look at their phones immediately before falling asleep. Among teenagers, half feel addicted to their phones, along with 27% of parents. Additionally, the 18-24 demographic leads the average number of phone checks per day, at 82. However, studies show that people often underestimate their cell phone usage; some use it twice as much as they think. Dr. Sally Andrews of Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom observes, “a lot of smartphone use seems to be habitual, automatic behaviors that we have no awareness of.”

How do Collegiate students compare to these surprising national trends? Liza Miller (‘18) estimated that she checks her phone 15-20 times per day. When told the average figure for her demographic, she was surprised and offered two reasons why she (and others) probably underestimate their phone usage. Miller explained that she is “trying to be better about not being so consumed by [her] phone,” but also thinks the underestimation is due to the fact that “nobody wants to think that they’re that consumed with their life that they have to check it that many times per day.” Dorsey Ducharme (‘18) was closer to the actual estimate with his guess of 50 times per day, but when he was told the average, he admitted it was probably closer than his original estimate. Emily Mendelson (‘18) estimated that she checks her phone 20 times on the average school day, but added that she checks “below the average” number of times, which she speculated to be 45 checks per day. When told the real number, Emily thought it was “ridiculous” that people check their phones that many times per day. Libbie Alexander (‘18) estimates that she checks her phone at least 50 times per day, and Kenya Minor (‘18) agreed with her. Libbie and Kenya, like many other Collegiate students and families across the nation, are on shared family data plans. The two have had problems with their data, too; Libbie’s family had to upgrade to a bigger plan, and Kenya says she goes over her allotted data “every single time.”

People waiting for a subway, almost all of whom are checking their cell phones. Image credit: Taco Ekkel via Flickr.

When looking for a solution to their smartphone addiction, some people have turned to apps to help them control the amount of time they’re on their phone each day. Moment, an iOS app, allows the user to track the exact amount of time spent on their phone and sends notifications if the user spends more time using the device than they indicated as their goal time. Checky is another app that is used to control phone usage. It keeps track of the number of times the user checks their phone. Offtime offers an even higher level of tracking by allowing the user to set restrictions on their personal phone use to increase productivity at work or to just unplug. Another option is to purchase a blue light filter in order to manage the sometimes harmful effects on sleep of prolonged phone usage.

According to researchers, excessive screen time can have undesired effects on sleep and can cause other health issues. Using a phone or other device right before going to bed doesn’t allow the brain to calm the way it needs to in order to fall asleep. It does this by simulating daytime to the user’s brain, which can lead to insomnia and sleep deprivation. The production of the hormone melatonin is suppressed by blue light. This decrease makes it harder to fall and stay asleep, because melatonin controls one’s circadian rhythm, or sleep-wake cycle.

Another side effect, “Text neck,” refers to the neck and back pain associated with frequent cell phone use. To prevent this, phone users should try to hold their phones as close to eye-level as possible and avoid looking at their phones for extended periods of time. Doctors have observed an increase in patients complaining of neck pain due to poor posture from leaning over their devices. Nerve damage has also been observed as a result of talking on the phone for too long, a condition called “cell phone elbow.”

I personally think teenagers (myself included) use their phones more than they should, but often without realizing it. If people were aware of how much time they spend on their devices, they may realize that they’re missing out on time to do schoolwork or spend time with friends. If students were to leave their phones at home or power it off for a few hours, they may find themselves enjoying free time without the distraction of technology. The devices have become a source of comfort and a constant in our lives. Studies have shown the multiple benefits of unplugging, citing that the mere presence of our phones on our person or in the room can affect productivity. People should have an intent when reaching for their phones; they should try to limit the use that is purely out of boredom. Our smartphones have become an extension of ourselves; teens (and adults) rarely go anywhere without their phone in their pocket. Smartphones are an extremely useful tool to millions, but they can have harmful effects when used excessively.

About the author

Amy is a junior at Collegiate.