Before we begin, I ask you to check the screen time you have spent on your mobile phone/device (directions: https://www.guidingtech.com/check-screen-time-different-devices/). Look at the hours. Are you surprised? It’s much higher than you may have thought before, isn’t it? What about the apps you’ve been using? How much time does it say you’ve spent on social media, time-killing games, and search engines as you look for resources during these difficult times? You aren’t alone in your surprise at these numbers. In this lengthy period of isolation from our peers, many people have reported relying on their mobile devices more than they ever have before. A recent survey has shown screen time has increased nearly 500% amongst children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Another survey, performed by the research firm Isos which used a nationally representative sample of 1,005 U.S. adults, showed that nearly 80% reported higher screen time themselves. Now, many are experiencing the harmful effects.
Part 1: Why?
The most obvious question that needs addressing is why? Of course, the biggest guilty culprit is the COVID-19 pandemic itself. In a time where social isolation is encouraged, and it’s dangerous to travel outside the house unless going out for necessities, the lack of interpersonal comfort during a period where anxiety is at an all-time high has led many people trying to reforge these connections over the most available device, and for many, that’s the mobile phone. Due to their increasingly accessible nature, portability, and high capabilities, over the last seven years, mobile phone usage has risen over 222%, and in 2019 word-wide web traffic was 52% came from mobile phones. This year, we can expect those numbers to have a steep rise as video calling and telecommuting become the norm.
As the educational efforts resume after an interrupted school year earlier this year, many school districts, including my own, have turned to online-learning instead of in-person instruction in a regular classroom setting. While this is, ultimately, safer for all involved, many are growing concerned for the effects this may have on the eyes, especially those of younger children. For many children, especially those raised during the age of innovation in the field of smartphones, mobile devices are the most accessible and most familiar devices for games and social media. It’s an easy transition from those activities to fulfilling school assignments using the device.
This increased use of smartphones for work is demonstrated in the recent ranks of top-downloaded apps. Video-calling apps have consistently topped download charts as more and more people transition to telecommuting. One of these apps, Zoom, is currently the biggest and most recognizable of these professional communication apps. With a current market value of $58 billion, Zoom reported revenue of $328.2 million for their first quarter of 2020, up 169% from 2019. Schools and businesses have increasingly adopted the utility for meetings, classes, and tutoring. Even the reigning Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth II, partook in the trend, joining a call hosted on Zoom to talk with members of the British Army, and most recently used the service to meet with staff from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
Representative of these changing times, many other apps have also risen in the download ranks. Online ordering apps, such as DoorDash,Uber-Eats, and GrubHub, have steeply risen in popularity, as many people have begun ordering food directly to their homes, as opposed to risking infection by going out to a public store. Many small restaurants rely on these online orders to persevere through this difficult time. Almost 75% of 400 restaurants surveyed reported higher delivery sales during the outbreak. Restaurants using these delivery services have increased 27% since it began. Instacart saw a 650% increase in users in the U.S. between March and April.
Meanwhile, other communications apps have also recorded higher numbers. Discord, while not primarily smart-phone based, has increased its monthly average users by 47% since February. Facebook’s Messenger for Kids saw a 574% rise in downloads between February and March. Despite the risk of scammers, many people have switched to banking and money transferring apps in order to minimize contact while shopping. Traffic to Google Classroom has more than doubled. A new app from Epic Games called Houseparty received 50 million installs between March and April, and has become the #1 social video app in 82 countries. Netflix grew 19.5% in downloads in the U.S. as more people switch to digital streaming. Daily average users of medicinal apps for recording heath have increased 110% during the outbreak.
Not all changes are positive, however. With new stay-in-place orders, the real estate app, Zillow, has seen a 23.6% decline in new users this year, and Airbnb booking in major U.S. cities have dropped 50% in March when compared to numbers from the beginning of the year.
Our heath hasn’t been spared from these negative changes, either.
Part 2: Risks
As you can tell from the information above, people have been relying on smartphone apps more than ever before, but with this new-found comfort in electronics come risks.
Blue light, the primary color emitted by mobile devices, has the shortest wavelength then any other color. It’s high energy, and can easily damage the sensitive tissues of the eye with over-exposure. More severely, however, it can mess with your circadian rhythm. Blue light, more than any other, is what boosts our attention and reaction-time during the day, but as we expose ourselves to it more and more, and later and later in the day, our sense of day and night grows more warped. As we increasingly replace natural light with artificial blue light, our circadian rhythm stretches out to adjust to this new period of “daylight”, meaning our bodies begin to produce less melatonin (the chemical which helps you fall asleep), which can lead to insomnia, raised blood-sugar levels, and consequently depression. A recent Harvard University study stated, “The blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (3 hours vs. 1.5 hours).”
Part 3: Reducing your screen time
While you should always be conscious of your screen time, it’s more important now more than ever. With all the new reasons to use digital communication over in-person meetings, it’s easy to let your screen time and intake of blue-light get out of hand. Here’s some of the best tips I’ve found for lessening the time I spend on my phone, and more effectively using the time that I have to.
- Like with a weight loss program, it’s good to first inform those around you of your goals. This way, you can be held accountable for any over-use, and you’ll have friends to keep you motivated! Keep your eyes out for fun challenges and hashtags aimed at lessening screen time as well.
- It’s also important to be realistic. Cutting your screen time down to, lets say, an hour a day while you’re a full-time student most likely isn’t going to happen unless you want to start skipping classes.
- Go outside! Going outside in nature releases endorphins and improves your mood in a similar way a good mobile game might, but without the added harm of screen time.
- Interact with those around you, and use the time you’re off the screen to strengthen friend and family bonds. An interesting conversation or board game can do a lot to improve the mood of everyone involved, and you’ll be surprised what you can learn about those around you in even the briefest conversation. My family has recently been playing a board game called Listography which has led to some fun, screen-less interactions between us all.
- While less effective than completely turning off your phone, many devices have filters you can apply to your screen via the settings to lessen the amount of blue light it emits.
- Try to find alternatives to the things that you spend the most screen time with. While it might be hard to do that when you’re telecommuting, things like reading e-books, playing games on your phone to kill time, and listening to music all have screen-less alternatives you can look into.
- Try to avoid looking at your phone before going to bed. Like I explained earlier, blue light reduces the production of melatonin in your body, making it harder to fall asleep. This new period of restlessness at night can lead to spending a lot of extra time on your phone before finally being able to fall asleep.
- Focus your usage on the apps that matter. If you have to use your phone, try to use it primarily for necessary services like phone calls, emails, and messages. Time-killing apps like social media and mobile games account for a lot of screen time which could’ve been easily avoided by using other methods of entertainment.
- On many mobile devices, you can also set screen time limits, either in general or specific to certain apps, which will stop you from using your device if you pass the usage duration you’ve set. Usually, these options can be found in the setting application, or in other dedicated services you can download onto your device.
- An interesting tip I found is to set your phone to grey-scale coloring, which can be found in most accessibility options. Reportedly, without all the bright colors of your normal home screen, it’s much easier to turn your attention away from the app icons that are purposely colored to get you to notice them.
- Last, but certainly not least, disable the notification from apps that aren’t important. It’s fine to allow communication-focused apps to send you notifications, but for others, it might help to turn off the notifications. That way, you aren’t being prompted to check your phone for usually useless information.
There’s a lot we don’t have control over in these difficult times, but hopefully these tips can help you take control of the amount of time you spend on mobile devices and avoid the risks associated with excess, if nothing else.