Feature: An investigation into the psychological toll of screen time


Lucy Peck, Staff Writer

“I was sitting with my family watching a movie, and I kept compulsively checking my phone,” Sophia Paley (11) said. “It was difficult for me to focus on the movie, and I kept pausing to check notifications, maybe 15 or 20 times throughout the course of the film.”

Paley is one of many Upper Division (UD) students who have noticed the adverse psychological effects of an increased dependence on screens, including a reduced attention span, a compulsive desire to check notifications, an inability to put devices down, and depression. 

UD students engage with devices such as phones, tablets or computers for varying amounts of time. In a Record poll with 128 responses, the largest percentage of respondents (22%) reported a phone screen time of four hours, 19% reported three hours, and 13% reported six hours. The most used apps on their phones included Tik Tok, Instagram and Snapchat. The poll respondents spent even more time on their computers, with the largest percentage (20%) reporting a computer screen time of three hours, 18% reporting five hours, and 15% reporting four hours. The most frequently used apps on their computers were Chrome and Safari. 

The school’s academics necessitate this high level of on-screen time, Meenakshi Vora (9) said. Almost every important piece of information that is communicated to UD students is done so via email, including UD Dean of Students Michael Dalo’s weekly preview, teachers posting a new assignment on google classroom, and the Happiness Club’s snack happenings, she said. “Without it, we’d have no idea what tomorrow’s homework is or when the next test will be.”

This reliance on technology presents advantages and disadvantages, Vora said. On one side, students have constant, easy access to all the information that they need, and new information can be added 24/7, even after school, she said. “But, this does mean that students have almost no choice but to constantly be in front of a screen.” 

The relationship students and faculty currently have with technology relates to the historical concept of “technological lock-in,” UD History teacher Dr. Ellen Bales said. One example of this concept involves cars — as cars skyrocketed in popularity, they became ingrained into the fabric of daily life, she said. “Pretty soon the expectation that people have cars gets mapped onto social life, like with the expectation that you can travel some distance to go to school or work.”

 Phones produce a similar effect, Bales said. “It’s hard, particularly if you are younger, to unilaterally withdraw from phones because you would feel like, ‘How would I stay in touch with my friends?’ ‘How would I know what’s going on?’ ‘How would I have any access to culture that’s meaningful?’” 

These high screen times may have drastic psychological repercussions. According to research conducted by the Georgia Institute of Technology, high screen times result in a compulsive urge to check notifications. Some technology users even experience “phantom notifications,” which occur when users become accustomed to receiving notifications to the point they hear phantom pings or ringing. 

Chloe Ludwig (9) has experienced the need to compulsively check for notifications, she said. “I just like being in the loop and seeing what people have to say, and receiving notifications bothers me,” she said. “That’s why putting my phone on do not disturb during the school day is really helpful.”

“There’s a strong need to check notifications and our phones generally, Brianna Wells (10) said. “If there’s a gap in conversation or uninteresting topic surfacing, you check your phone. If you’re uncomfortable socially, you check your phone.” 

According to research conducted by the Aviv Medical Program, since screens allow for constant stimulation, technology users have a shorter attention span when participating in activities that are less absorbing. Lexi Lawsky (10) notices a lack of patience when she is looking at a screen. “I will snap at whoever is talking to me because I want to get back to whatever I am doing,” she said.

Ludwig, on the other hand, has not experienced a decrease in patience or attention span. She is able to remain focused on tasks for extended periods of time without flipping through tabs, she said.

The Aviv Medical Program’s research also found that, because technology conditions people to expect immediate gratification, users feel the desire to fill all gaps of free time with screens and become uncomfortable with simply allowing their brains to wander.

For instance, Paley has observed that students often text a friend or check social media while they walk down the hallway during passing time. “I do it too, as I often feel the impulse to fill the time before class starts or while I’m walking to lunch by using my phone,” she said. 

Zach Hornfeld (9) attempts to limit his screen time so he can process his thoughts about what happened that day. “On a school day especially, I’ll do this more often than I scroll through the internet or watch TV — but I don’t spend too much time doing either.”

Paley said that students’ high screen times are due, in part, to the difficulty of pulling away from screens. “When people are scrolling, sometimes thirty or forty minutes go by without them realizing,” she said. “It’s easy to get sucked in.”

Aamri Sareen (11) has experienced the addictive nature of Netflix. Sareen finds that the platform’s ‘Next Episode’ button prompts viewers to continue watching for hours. “Once you start watching a series, it’s usually hard to pull yourself away,” she said.

Evie Steinman (9) is also often sucked in by screens. “Thoughts can pop into your head about, let’s say, ‘who’s the biggest singer right now?’ then you go down this rabbit hole of YouTube and articles,” she said. “An hour later you find that you’ve done barely any work.” 

Phones and computers are engineered to lure users, as they are built by a task force team of professionals, including innovators, social scientists and analysts, Computer Teacher Dr. Glenda Guerrero said. “Mechanical and electrical engineers design and prototype devices that serve as a tool to enhance the needs of an individual,” she said. “The sociologists and the marketing research analysts study the users and how they respond to the product.”

According to News Medical, screen usage has been linked to depression, anxiety and brain fog. Steinman feels that screens take a toll on her mental health, she said. “After spending a lot of time on screens, I can get kind of depressed,” she said. “Especially when I’m not doing anything really productive, for example, on Instagram or YouTube, I find myself spending so much time on those apps, and I can’t really control it.”

Bales also believes that constantly having screens nearby and receiving messages from others can be taxing on mental health, she said. “Psychologically, that seems really costly to anybody, but especially to those of us who are introverts because you really need to be not reachable by other people so that you can recharge,” she said. 

Researchers are still just beginning to understand how screens affect us physiologically, Psychologist Dr. Ian Pervil said. Screens affect the ways users interact with the world and with each other, how users take in information as a distortion of reality, and generally result in a decreased tolerance for uncertainty or uncomfortability. “These are all studies in their infancy, and we may have to wait another generation or two to see how profoundly our digital devices affect us,” he said. “Long before then, we’ll probably be able to feel those changes transforming our lives, just as we are already feeling them now.”

The negative effects of screen time are compounded when students engage with screens for both academics and during freetime, Paley said. Paley uses a laptop to complete her homework and then uses her phone or TV to relax once she has completed her work, she said. “That means I’m looking at some form of screen for the majority of my day.” 

After spending long periods of time on screens, poll respondents report feeling dizzy and suffering headaches or eye strain. Miller Harris (12) experiences these symptoms when he finishes a long period of online studying, so he finds non-digital ways to unwind after finishing work. “Since it is unavoidable to do schoolwork with screens, it makes sense to find non-screen activities for when you’re done with work, like walking your dog or hanging out with friends.”

Bales has also made efforts to combat the detrimental effects of technology. For example, she mandates a strict no-technology policy in her classes, where students leave their phones at the door, she said. “So many of our spaces, even our mental space, is disrupted and fragmented by interruptions that come from electronics,” she said. “The classroom is one place where we can actually look at each other face to face […] and not have the phone or the computer or the iPad calling to us.” 

Paley has attempted to reduce distractions from electronics by setting screen time limits on both TikTok and Snapchat, she said. “These limits prevent me from getting sucked in and force me to track and complete my work.” 

  Despite recent findings about the consequences of technology, many still have difficulty confronting the negative aspects of technology. Paley has noticed this phenomenon in teens, she said. “Some teens don’t want to hear about the downsides of social media or technology because they’re fun and engaging.”

Poll responses to the question “How does being on your screen make you feel?”

I wish we could go back to a screenless society.

It’s a way to procrastinate. I don’t like that I do it, but I can’t bring myself to stop.

Doing most if not all of my homework and schoolwork on a computer just makes it feel like I work some 9 to 5 office job.

It’s really frustrating. I had to go to the eye doctor for dry eyes due to my eyes being watery and itchy from staring at a screen.

Our generation has been raised to be dependent on devices to succeed in society. It’s a little inevitable.

I used to have a disgustingly long screen time and it made me feel terrible. I wouldn’t remember any of the stuff I got from watching 4 hrs of Instagram Reels. However, with heavy screen time limits & a lot of healthy distance from social media, I’ve been able to feel more in control of my life.

Stressed; claustrophobic; powerless; drained; brain-fog; zombie-like; de-energizing; unproductive; addicted; nauseated; guilty