We All Use Our Phones Differently — So General Measures Of “Screen Time” Are Not Very Useful

By Emily Reynolds

The impact of technology on young people is an oft-debated topic in the media. Is increased screen time having a serious impact on their mental health? Or have we over-exaggerated the level of risk young people face due to their use of tech?

According to a new study, published in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, we could be asking the wrong questions. A team led by Nastasia Griffioen at Radboud University Nijmegen suggests that rather than looking at screen time in a binary way, researchers should explore the nuances of smartphone use: how young people are using their phones, rather than the fact they’re using them at all.

The original aim of the study was to look at how stress regulation affected social media use. First, 114 participants aged 18 to 25 filled in measures of depression, anxiety, emotional regulation, self-compassion and rejection sensitivity. They were then split into two conditions: a stress condition, in which they had to give a recorded presentation for five minutes, and a control condition, in which they simply viewed and rated two presentations.

Participants were then asked to wait in the experiment room for ten minutes and told not to move from their seat; meanwhile, and unknown to the participants, a camera recorded their activity, looking closely at phone use. Upon the researcher’s return, participants were shown the video and were asked to share their motivations, thoughts and feelings each time they had started a new activity on their phones.

Due to methodological issues, the stress manipulation didn’t seem to work. But the team still found some interesting results regarding smartphone use overall. Phone use was widespread: 96.5% of participants used their phone at some point during the ten minutes, 80% of whom started using their phone as soon as the experimenter left the room. Just over 48% used their smartphone for the full ten minutes. How participants used their phones, however, was more varied. Some used mainly social media, while others engaged in online shopping, read articles, or played games; similarly, some participants switched between apps only once, while others switched up to twenty one times.

Only a quarter of participants said they felt bad during an activity they’d engaged in on their phones, and these negative feelings were not normally related to social interactions: for instance, some participants reported feeling generally bored, while one reported feeling bad after finding out that their football club had lost. While some reported feeling bad because of what someone else had posted or sent them, these experiences were in the minority. Nearly 94% of participants also reported having positive feelings while using their phone — laughing at a funny post, feeling curious about something, or simply enjoying looking through their feeds. Messaging apps were associated with the highest level of positive feeling.

The team also looked at active vs. passive use of phones. While some participants made a conscious choice not to use their smartphone at all, passive phone use was most closely associated with social media, which participants largely engaged with out of habit or boredom. However, there wasn’t much evidence that participants’ feelings were different during passive vs active use.

With such disparate phone activities established, the team then turned to the mental health symptoms measured at the start of the study. Adults with high levels of depression symptoms reported fewer positive feelings associated with using social media, and in particular with passive use of social media — but at the same time were also more likely to use Facebook. This was also the case for those with higher levels of anxiety. Participants with higher levels of sensitivity to rejection were less likely to spend time messaging, and less likely to experience positive feelings while messaging, using social media, and scrolling. On the other hand, those with higher levels of self-compassion were more likely to experience positive feelings, more likely to use a varied number of social media platforms, and showed higher engagement in non-smartphone based activities.

So while phone use was fairly ubiquitous, it’s clear that participants differed in terms of the activities they chose to do, how they felt about doing them, and the individual differences that impacted both. The team argues that the fact young people use their phones in many different ways and for many different reasons essentially renders catch-all questions about “screen time” useless. Because the study was time-limited and conducted in a lab, future research could also look at how smartphones are used in daily life.

As the team says, the results suggest a “complex, dynamic, and variable picture” when it comes to phone use and its impact. Looking more carefully at these individual differences, rather than simply condemning phone use completely, could provide more useful insights and more useful interventions for those kinds of use that do cause harm.

Everyone does it—differently: A window into emerging adults’ smartphone use

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest