Screen Time: What and How Much is Too Much?

Saurabh Bagchi

We are on screens on all the time, as faculty members in Computer Science and as human beings in a technologically developed society. Screens come in all form factors, from the mobile phone that has us wrapped around it continually, to multiple monitors at work, to surrounding gigantic screens for consuming our entertainment. This large amount of screen time has raised alarm bells — from our ability to focus and think deep thoughts to our mental health. I got to thinking about this in a navel-gazing exercise after recently having to sit down and read about 20 papers and 5 proposals for reviewing, in an intense contiguous period of five days because I was running up against deadlines. It stretched my ability to keep screen distractions away. So I will contemplate on two questions here.

  1. What constitutes screen time? This is not obvious — my layers of monitors at work where I use them to look at visualization do not constitute screen time, my Kindle reading of a magazine arguably does not, and then there are obvious ones that do like scrolling through the unending social media messages.
  2. How much screen time is too much? This is not obvious — different folks have different tolerances and the tolerance varies depending on other factors going on in our lives, like what time pressures we have, how we are multi-tasking as we are getting such screen time.

Spoiler alert: I give no definitive answers based on a scientific study with many people. I give my subjective take based on a small sample set.

What is screen time?

Here I am not using the term “screen time” in the obvious physical sense of looking at a screen, but rather for the kind of activity that we should limit. One obvious way to demarcate this is to say anything that we do for work is not screen time. But this is a little too convenient. We look through Twitter at work ostensibly for keeping up with our professional networks. We look at YouTube videos on work topics. Much of that to me is screen time.

Where I come down is that we look at screen for work-related activities, broadly defined, that does not count as screen time. As I read some technology article say on BBC or MIT Tech Review, which is only tangentially related to work, I am folding all that in to this category, a little too conveniently. And taking the converse, screen time is what I do that is completely optional for my work.

Then there is a subtle classification, both of which is screen time. One is individual and the other is communal, or more relevantly, family screen time. Purists would scowl but I think the latter is a pragmatic reality and needs to be tolerated, if not embraced. I think back to my childhood days crowding around our television as a family for some memorable programs, all on the government-run Doordarshan, the single channel available to us. The fact that I remember the pleasantness, even joy, of some of those shared moments is a good argument for the family screen time.

What’s the screen time allowance?

First let us look at what the experts tell us. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends two hours per day for teens and adults — yes they may be pediatricians but they are still medical professionals and know what to tell us adults. The more nuanced message is that it is not just the time, but the content we are consuming that also matters [ WWW ]. This kind of message I can get behind.

The ill effects of excessive screen time are enough to strike terror into the hearts of even those workaholics who go about bragging how they are always working on their screens. To quote from a Time magazine article aptly titled “Experts Can’t Agree on How Much Screen Time Is Too Much for Adults” (May 2022):

“Excessive screen time has been shown to have negative effects on children and adolescents. It’s been linked to psychological problems, such as higher rates of depression and anxiety, as well as health issues like poor sleep and higher rates of obesity. Many researchers believe that excessive screen use may not be as damaging to adults, but the impact hasn’t been studied as extensively. Recent research has found that it can still have damaging consequences, such as digital eye strain, impaired sleep, and worsened mental health.

OK, with all the bad news out of the way in this succinct summary, let us get back to the question of what type of screen time is really bad, what is bad, and what may be OK, in moderation or as Buddha would have it “The Middle Path” (in Sanskrit, “मध्यमप्रतिपादः”).

The OK Type of Screen Time

I find that reading an article, one not related to work, if it calls for me to read for some length of time, say more than 5 minutes, without being drawn into a warren of hyperlinks is the OK type. This takes various forms—reading a New York Times or a Wall Street Journal article, reading a post on Medium or The Conversation, or at the longest end of the spectrum, reading a book on Kindle. Well, I have never read one end-to-end in one sitting; reading a chapter or two at a stretch counts toward that.

The Bad Type of Screen Time

As much of a fan of BBC News I am, I have to say reading the news snippets on BBC’s News site, and going from one to the next, in manifestation of a voracious reading appetite is the Bad Type. Now BBC has many long form articles, in sections such as BBC Innovation and BBC Culture, which take me on surprising journeys and make me think. They definitely fall in the OK kind. So back to the Bad Type, in general scrolling through news article one after another, and face it, much of it is bad news, falls in this category.

The Really Bad Type of Screen Time

No suspense here. Scrolling through social media posts, filled with an alluring mishmash of text, images, video, sounds, a veritable assault on the senses, is the worst kind of screen time. I wish my scrolling through Twitter did not fall in this category, as that is supposedly for finding what my professional colleagues are cooking up in terms of latest discoveries. But sadly it does. Don’t we feel counter-intuitively that after a few tens of minutes of scrolling through social media content that we are drained of energy. So while many billions of dollars worth of market valuation depends on our compulsive urge to meander through miles of rabbit holes like possessed souls, that is the really bad kind of screen time.

The Bottom Line

I know I am doing the right kind of screen time when I give myself the freedom to switch off and ponder over what I have consumed and when that pondering generates some train of thought. So wandering in rabbit holes may not be bad after all, if we do not go too deep and the wandering is done as we are thinking rather than when we are consuming screen content. And even that right kind of screen time needs to be moderated, so we are leaving enough time for our professional development and for stepping outside in this balmy 70 degree February afternoon in the mid west. The clear blue sky with specks of clouds in fantastical shapes is a screen of a kind, just of cosmic proportions.

Saurabh Bagchi is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science at Purdue University, where he leads a university-wide center on resilience called CRISP. His research interests are in distributed systems and dependable computing, while he and his group have the most fun making and breaking large-scale usable software systems for the greater good.

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