Rethinking screen time: new research emphasizes ‘quality over quantity’

It is what we are looking at, rather than how much time we are spending our time online, that influences our health and well-being, according to a major new report from scientists.

A major new study, published in the journal World Psychiatry, found that it may be more about how we are spending our time online, rather than how much time we are spending, that influences our health and wellbeing. 

The international research collaborative, which includes Dr Josh Firth from the School of Biology, emphasizes the importance of taking an individualized and multi-dimensional approach to how the Internet affects mental health, cognition and social functioning.

Content that may be relatively harmless to some users may be damaging to a different demographic, such as the impact photos promoting unrealistic body shapes may have on people vulnerable to eating disorders or low self-esteem.

Right now, lots of the guidelines and recommendations around internet usage have focused on limiting the amount of time we spend online. While there is common sense in reducing our digital device usage to ensure time for healthy ‘real world’ activities, we are now able to describe how the consequences of our online activities are determined by things far beyond just time spent online.

Dr. Josh A. Firth, Senior Author, University of Leeds

Comparing two scenarios

The findings of the study can be shown using two scenarios:

In the first scenario, a young person is accruing a total of four hours per day online, through constantly engaging with distracting notifications whenever they appear on screen, and then scrolling endless streams of short-form media which can be algorithmically geared towards their vices or insecurities. Here, the detrimental effects from their time online could be evidenced in reduced concentration on important tasks, or perpetuating body image issues along with low self-esteem. 

In the second scenario, there is an older adult spending the exact same four hours per day online, but instead using this time to foster new social relationships and engage their minds with stimulating educational content, all of which can confer a myriad of benefits for their wellbeing and even brain functioning. Here, we can see very different outcomes arise from the exact same amount of time spent online. 

This emerging evidence of how the online world can influence our social functioning and brain health can now be used to begin developing more concrete guidelines and strategies for helping people to maximise the benefits, and minimise the risks, of their own individual ‘online lives’. 

Through drawing together the latest evidence from neuroscience, populational health and psychological studies, this report is able to describe how the positive or negative effects of internet usage for an individual can be influenced by simple things like age and sociodemographic status, along with complex factors around the actual nature of individuals’ “online lives.

Prof. Lee Smith, Professor of Public Health, Anglia Ruskin University

Dr Josh A Firth added that “further empirical research quantifying how new developments in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and augmented reality can shape our brain and behaviour will now be of much interest”. 

Photo credit: Christin Hume from unsplash.