Does screen time tell us anything useful?

Enrique Dans
Jun 6 · 3 min read

In 2019, for the first time, American adults will spend more time in front of their smartphone than watching television, 3:43 hours compared to 3:35 hours per day, with the former waxing and the latter waning.

What is the meaning of this trend and is it positive or negative? Before jumping to conclusions about smartphone addiction, we should think about screen time as a metric of the times we live. While television is essentially passive, computers and smartphones, and possibly to a lesser extent tablets, are interactive, which requires we interpret their use differently.

For some reason, the idea of ​​”television addiction”, for decades a worrying trend immortalized by the couch potato, has now been replaced by smartphone addiction, as though one had simply replaced the other.

Screen time is a changing metric, and much more complex than we tend to think. Researchers say the value of screen time as a metric, taken simply from use, is of little worth, while what can really contribute to the study of consumption patterns is screenome, a neologism formed by screen and genome, and that involves collecting and analyzing the entire sequence of screens a person consumes to chart the patterns derived from that consumption. Analysis of this type of data allows us to understand what kind of use a person makes of a device, how to establish their relationship with it, what habits lead to passive and unidirectional consumption versus a bidirectional and active one, detect any type of obsessive or compulsive behavior and determine any potential problems by correlating those patterns with problems such as depression.

In other words, trying to establish if a certain level of smartphone use is good or bad is simplistic. There is no healthy level of consumption against another supposedly dangerous one: instead, there are complex patterns that correspond to many types of use and that show how we all use them in different ways. Spend all one’s time chatting is not the same as scrolling through Instagram photos. A smartphone or a computer are enormously versatile devices, which implies that within the “screen time” metric we are introducing a huge amount of completely heterogeneous behaviors and that it makes no sense to lump them all in together. We now unlock our smartphone to make a call, we then use it to take some photographs, use a map to get where we’re going, read an email or a message and then check our bank account. To simply describe all this as “screen time” doesn’t help understand smartphone use.

Knowing how much time somebody uses their smartphone or any other device isn’t much use in itself. Instead, what we need to know is what they are doing in front of that screen and if that is perfectly normal or reflects some type of dysfunctional behavior.

When talking about our children’s smartphone use, which is perhaps best not analyzed by programs that monitor everything they do and then simply restricting use, but instead by something much simpler and recommendable: talking to them.


(En español, aquí)

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

Enrique Dans

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Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)