A few weeks ago I found myself worried that people weren’t actually thinking about the issues I was thinking about, specifically our dependency on and mass consumption of screened technology. With the rise of ChatGPT and commercials glamorizing the MetaVerse, I felt myself grow more terse and anxious, thinking, “Is nobody going to talk about this?!”
Of course, as always, I was not the only one thinking about this. Turns out most people live their lives as they usually do and then question reality in small, silent bursts every now and again, just like me!
To find out what the people in my circle were really thinking about the increase in screen time over the past 50 years, I whipped up a Typeform survey and sent it out to coworkers and friends/family on The Internet. You can actually check out all the results and responses for yourself in the report here, but I’ll recap everything for you below.
I created a small sample of questions related to demographic, screen time usage, mental state, and thoughts on global increased screen time over the past 50 years. I input these questions into Typeform, a survey-gathering website, and distributed it by posting once in my work group chat, once on LinkedIn, and once on Facebook.
- Do you know Amanda personally or professionally?
- What’s your age group?
- Do you use a screen for your occupation?
- What percentage of your non-work hours are used on a screen?
- Would you describe yourself as anxious or depressed within the past year?
- Were these feelings of anxiety or depression exacerbated by screen time?
- Do you think that the increased use of screen time in the past 50 years is an overall benefit or overall detriment to the human condition?
- Explain your answer.
- Populations with the most screen time have experienced anxiety and depression in the past year
- These populations would majority report that screen time exacerbated their reported anxiety or depression
- I also believed that those who used screens most would overall see screen time as a net positive to the human condition. I predicted this mostly because they are already in the habit of using that much screen time, and to think about reducing it in concurrence with moral views may be uncomfortable
Demographics & contextualization
Some stats on who responded to my report:
- 88% of respondents were Gen Z or millennials, with Gen Z comprising 49% of that population
- 91% of respondents reported using a computer for work “almost exclusively” (75-100% of the time)
- 73% of respondents reported that between 75% and 90% of their free time was used on a screened device
- 82% described themselves as anxious or depressed within the past year, and just over two thirds of those respondents reported that screen time exacerbated this anxiety or depression
The data requires contextualization, because I distributed this to a work group chat first, so we’ve got some skewed data. I inserted a question to determine if the respondent knew me personally or professionally- and 66% of respondents knew me professionally. We can assume then that two thirds of the responses come from the crowd at a young, tech startup company, where our work is exclusively completed on computers and 95% of the population is Gen Z or millennial. Keep this in mind!
Psst… Check ’em out here.
But my hypotheses were mostly correct:
1. Populations with the most screen time have experienced anxiety and depression in the past year
Of the 24 respondents who used screens in 75-100% of their free time, 17 of them reported feeling anxious or depressed- that’s 71%…
2. These populations would majority report that screen time exacerbated their reported anxiety or depression
But only 10, or 42%, of those respondents reported that anxiety or depression was exacerbated by screen time usage. Overall, however, 62% of respondents regardless of how often they used screen time in their free time who reported feeling anxious or depressed in the last year reported that these feelings were exacerbated by screen time usage, which is almost two thirds. That’s majority, baby! (Score Amanda: 1, Score Humanity: 0.)
3. I also believed that those who used screens most would overall see screen time as a net positive to the human condition. I predicted this mostly because they are already in the habit of using that much screen time, and to think about reducing it in concurrence with moral views may be uncomfortable
Of the 24 respondents who used screens in 75-100% of their free time, 10 of them claimed that increased screen time was a benefit to the human condition. That means 42% 0f these respondents believed it was a net positive, while 58% believed it was a detriment.
Of the 62% of respondents that overall reported feeling anxious or depressed in the last year AND that these feelings were exacerbated by screen time usage, only a quarter believed that increased screen time usage was a benefit. That means 75% of people who have felt their mental state negatively altered by screen time usage see it as a detriment.
My biggest goal was to determine what people really thought about screen time and advancing technology. I figured that screen time is so ingrained in our lives today that it’s possible someone may respond without “knowing the facts”- I figured that if reminded about the link between anxiety and depression and screen time, they may more equally consider their viewpoints. (Bias!) I also just wanted to know that info in general, and see if people who used screen time most attributed an increase in anxiety or depression to their frequent screen time use.
Thirty three percent (33%) of respondents, or 11 out of 33, reported that increased screen time was a benefit to society. Of the 81% of these responses that were categorical in nature (i.e. able to be distilled into a key theme), I found:
- 77% cited interconnectivity/improved communication/access to friends
- 33% cited the ability to work remotely
- 33% cited research/access to information
Here are some responses I found interesting:
“using screens for communicating with friends when they’re not physically present, for learning, to enable people to work from out of office, for exchange of ideas, are all huge benefits on society. people can talk to others halfway across the world the same way they can talk to their neighbor, and i think that’s a net good” (Firstly, dead giveaway of Gen Z with the lack of capitalization (I kno who u r), but I like how this respondent pointed out the capitalization of screen time for learning and education. Technology and screens reduce the barriers needed to learn with the rise of YouTube and online courses/higher education- so long as individuals have access to those technologies.)
“Technology has vastly improved our ability to communicate and automate things in our lives. I would argue that not screen time, but social media specifically, is what the biggest detriment to society is.” (Automation. I didn’t think about that one.)
About half of the respondents included some sort of counter-argument (i.e. I know the cons but the pros outweigh them), and a quarter of those respondents were up in the air about whether or not advancing technology was truly a benefit (i.e. Social media is actually the culprit, I hope it’s a benefit to humanity, etc.).
Seventy seven percent (77%) of respondents, or 18 out of 33, reported that increased screen time was a benefit to society. Of the 17 of these responses that were categorical in nature, I found:
- 41% cited lack of interconnectivity or communication, or disconnection between humans
- 24% cited insecurities, comparisons, or unattainable societal expectations
- 18% cited an excess of information/content consumed or disinformation
Other runners-up included less time spent outdoors and a sedentary lifestyle, each at 18% of responses.
Here are some responses I found interesting:
“Although we’re able to be more productive than ever. I think screentime, especially social media, serves to further disconnect a generation of people desperately without a solid sense of community or belonging.” (I appreciate that this respondent acknowledged a screened device’s, or computer’s, ability to make us more productive than ever. I wouldn’t have this blog without a computer. I also appreciate the grouping of an entire generation afflicted with this issue.)
“Tough question. I think it’s made us more insecure, self involved and disconnected from others. It’s mean to connect but makes us question our own reality to the point of never feeling fully satisfied. If we paid less attention to what everyone else was doing I think we would be happier as a whole.” (Very deep, Respondent X29.)
Just over a quarter of the respondents, 5 out of 18, did include some sort of counter-argument (i.e. I know the pros but the cons outweigh them). The majority of that quarter acknowledged that the screen itself is not the winter of our discontent, per se, but that the content consumed, for example, or the dependence on the screen itself, was the problem.
I am biased, but I’m not stupid. (At least, I hope I’m not.) I know that there are benefits to the technological advancements of the screen we’ve seen in the past 50 years (since 1973), including the almighty computer. I love my computer(s). I love writing on my computer. I love designing on my computer. I love using my computer as a tool for creative pursuits because it’s efficient, allows me to write better and I can’t draw by hand for shit so digital is best for me. I am also a huge fan of really good TV and movies, which, since the dawn of their creation, have been made almost exclusively with the help of screened technology. Let’s not forget that things like, um, cures for diseases, the availability of the average person to start their own business or pursue a lifelong dream, and journalism and the search for truth have been aided and significantly advanced by digital technology.
But this is because the screens used in these advancements were used as tools, more specifically, computers. These screens were not used as addictive hand-helds. People were not clocking 7.5 hours per day consuming entertainment media on their screens.
I brought this question of benefit versus detriment up to one of my more analytical colleagues, and he challenged me to define the terms. Well, not really- he challenged me by bringing a Trolley Problem-esque approach of if advancing technology has saved X many lives, but cost Y many lives, is it a net good? Very utilitarian way to look at it.
I guess I should define the terms a bit. My interest in this debate is less “is increased screen time saving lives” than it is “is increased screen time good for the human condition, our mental state, our internal landscapes, our nervous systems, our children, our women, our men, the advancement of our species as socioemotional creatures.” To the former question, I would say, probably, assuming the screen with which people are participating is work-related. To the latter, I would say absolutely not.
In my eyes, there is no net positive to scrolling. There is no net positive to a 24/7 news cycle. There is no net positive to pushing diet pills onto young girls, young boys, or any young person in between. There is no net positive to priming the brain for addiction and vying for something shiny at the first sign of boredom. There’s a net positive in creative expression, but how many selfies can be truly regarded as creative expression? There’s a net positive to cultivating a community, but how many online groups can one regard as her true friends?
I think all of my respondents are correct in what they wrote and think. This is a nuanced issue. We shouldn’t point our fingers at the screen, it’s not the culprit. It’s not nuanced enough to be. We should point the fingers at ourselves, and how we specifically think critically about, and mindfully utilize, screened technology as it advances.
Fire, the Gutenberg press, automobiles, SPF 50… Forget ’em. The computer and the Internet are arguably the most mind-blowingly awesome, efficient, and productive inventions the human race, this planet, this solar system has ever seen. But like unprotected sex, oppressive religion, and sour gummy worms, too much of it unchecked and without intention can lead to disease of the mind, body, soul, and creature overall. It’s no secret that stargazing or bird watching promotes more well-being than a series of 1’s and 0’s, and the human condition overall, though improved by technological advances impossible without a screen, does not benefit from the increased screen time regarding entertainment and social medias.
The researcher would like to remind her readers that she is extremely biased given she’s writing this on a website dedicated in part to digital minimalism….
But I’m realistic enough to understand that I alone cannot and probably would not reverse our digital advances in the past 100 years, because it affords me and all the people I know things like jobs and cars and travel and fulfillment and knowledge. (If I create another survey I would define the terms much more precisely, i.e. “Do you believe society’s x% uptick in screened entertainment media is an overall benefit or detriment to society” OR change the question entirely to “Do you believe advancing technology is an overall benefit or detriment to society, and also what about screened entertainment media.”)
I do believe, or at least hope with all my fingers and toes crossed tight, that we see a natural balancing of the pendulum. When society swings too far towards progress, for example, we move back to tradition. Too much screen time causing anxiety and depression? My hope is that the collective will take decisive action to break their addiction to its allure, and that “progress” will not be used as a rallying cry for the destruction of our nervous systems, social connections, and those of our children. I hope we teach ourselves and the next generation how to use screened devices as tools in moderation, knowing their addictive qualities, and that we keep our eye on our humanity as our technologies advance. And I hope, more than anything, that people keep making surveys like this, and that other people keep responding. It was comforting to know that other people have pondered this issue as well.