Does excess screen time hurt us? At first blush, this seems like a strange question, given widespread concern that screen time interferes everything from kids' learning and social connections to sleep and physical fitness in people of all ages. Screens are also blamed for harming mental health and offering damaging influences ranging from fake news to online bullying.
The problem, says a new commentary in the scientific journal Nature, is that researchers struggle to collect data that gives a detailed view of how such effects operate in real life.
"Everything we think we know about how people use digital media might well be incomplete, irrelevant or wrong," write Stanford communications professor Byron Reeves, PhD; Stanford pediatric obesity expert Thomas Robinson, MD; and their Penn State collaborator, Nilam Ram, PhD, a specialist in human development and psychology. Much of our data on screen use is now collected by asking people what they do -- but humans are pretty bad at giving accurate descriptions of their habits on questionnaires.
Getting a granular view of people's onscreen lives could be a powerful tool for understanding their physical and mental health, as well as many other aspects of life, as Robinson explains in a Stanford press release:
No matter what you study, whether it's politics, addiction, health, relationships, or climate action, if you really want to understand peoples' beliefs and behaviors, you really need to look at their 'screenome,' because so much of our lives is now filtered through our digital devices... Many of the things we once did face-to-face are now reflected and recorded on our screens, whether it is banking or deciding what to eat or making friends or playing games or dating or exercising or discussing politics, and so on.
The scientists propose a solution, a research technique they've developed to comprehensively record and analyze everything people do in their online lives.
In the Screenomics Lab at Stanford, where the three scientists are principal investigators, they've created software, installed with participants' consent on their smart phones and other devices, that takes a screenshot every 5 seconds whenever the device is switched on. The resulting streams of screenshots give a much higher-resolution view of how people relate to online content than, say, online tracking methods now used for targeted marketing. With the data, scientists can ask, for instance, whether particular patterns of use (frequent short bursts vs. a few longer periods of screen time), sequences of content (say, flipping back and forth between health or social content) or activities (generating vs. consuming online content) have specific relationships to users' well-being.
The researchers are now calling for a Human Screenome Project. Like its namesake, the Human Genome Project, this would take an open-source, big-data approach to exchanging and building new knowledge, while maintaining the privacy of study participants. The team already has more than 30 million data points from 600 smartphone users and hopes to enroll many more participants willing to share their onscreen lives for science.
Again, from the press release:
The researchers are optimistic that the project's findings can be used to encourage healthier screen use. "It's not just giving people information about what they're doing, but actually building interventions around it," Robinson said. "For example, if a person is struggling with becoming more physically active, we can identify their digital media use associated with periods of sedentary behavior and steer them, using precisely timed and personally tuned interventions, towards healthier outcomes."
Photo by Meghan Schiereck