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Quality over quantity for screen time - study

Published: 29 May 2024 at 07:30

Woman wearing glasses operating a tablet

New research reveals what we see online affects us more than length of exposure

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

The study, published in the journal World Psychiatry, is a comprehensive examination of the latest scientific evidence on screen time and mental health, carried out by an international research team.

The authors emphasise the importance of taking an individualised 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.

The report addresses a range of impacts that an increased online presence has on wellbeing, tackling issues such as ‘fear of missing out’, how behaviours and viewpoints are manipulated through social media, isolation, social comparisons, and the effects on the body such as increased sedentary behaviour.

Co-author Lee Smith, Professor of Public Health at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said:

“Take two scenarios: In the first, 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. This could result in reduced concentration on important tasks, or cause body image issues or 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 access educational content, providing 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 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’.

Senior Author, Dr Josh A. Firth from University of Leeds explained:

"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 digital device usage are determined by things far beyond just time spent online.”

Professor Smith added:

“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’.”


The full, open-access study can be read here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wps.21188