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Parasite, Bong Joon-ho (2019)
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho (2019)

Ask An Expert: Is soaring screen time rotting our brains?

A recent study revealed that we spend a third of our waking lives on mobile apps in 2021 — here’s what that means for your health, and what effects you need to look out for

What do you do when you first wake up in the morning? If, like the rest of us, you immediately pick up your phone to get a head start on a long day of pointless emails and doomscrolling, then we have some good news. And some bad news.

The good news? You’re not alone. According to a recent report from the app monitoring firm App Annie, staring at mobile apps occupies a third of our waking lives, with people across the world spending an average of 4.8 hours a day on their phones. Apparently, this is up 30 per cent from 2019 (three guesses why), though it reflects similar reports from UK regulator Ofcom in 2020.

The figures also reflect viewing trends, suggests chief executive of App Annie, Theodore Krantz (via the BBC). TikTok, for instance, reportedly saw 90 per cent more usage compared with 2020, signalling a shift toward short-form, small-screen content. “The big screen is slowly dying as mobile continues to break records in virtually every category — time spent, downloads and revenue,” Krantz says. This suggests that our overall screen time probably hasn’t risen quite as much as the data suggests, though its unclear to what extent watching TV has been replaced with spending time on our phones.

Nevertheless, onto the bad news (which is pretty self-evident by now, to be honest, but it bears repeating). So far, we know little about how mobile phone usage directly affects the brain, but we do know that behaviours often associated with increased screen time — such as reduced sleep, or spending less time with friends and family IRL — can have harmful effects on our physical and mental health.

“There used to be a worry about whether radiofrequency waves emitted by mobile phones close to the brain may cause damage through heating,” says Prof. Iroise Dumontheil, of the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, a leading facility in Birkbeck University of London’s Department of Psychological Sciences. However, she dismisses the idea that we’re literally cooking our brains, adding: “Mobile phone technology has changed considerably, and the way we use our phones, in our hands mostly rather than by our ears for phone calls, has also completely changed.”

However, she confirms that rising screen time “will have direct effects on the brain, in the same way that everything we do, every experience we have, every memory we make is encoded in our brains”. That’s not to mention the indirect effects: “Are we spending less time outside, doing exercise, or socialising?”

One complication, when it comes to deciding just how much damage we’re doing to our brains by staring at our phones five hours a day, is the fact that we aren’t all using them for the same thing. “What activity people do through apps is really varied,” Dumontheil adds. “We communicate with friends, read the news, passively view media, play games, exercise, or meditate. Each type of use will have a different impact on our mental health and well-being.”

In fact, the App Annie study shows that health and fitness apps saw significant growth during the pandemic, as people couldn’t attend the gym or group classes. The top five meditation and mindfulness apps similarly grew by 27 per cent, especially popular among young people.

“Using apps that foster these activities may be beneficial,” Dumontheil suggests. “But there is little research investigating this directly, and taking an exercise class in a gym, in a social context, may still be better than doing it by yourself in your living room. But doing it by yourself in your living room is probably better than not doing any exercise at all!”

“Using a mobile phone, watching TV or playing video games will have direct effects on the brain, in the same way that everything we do, every experience we have, every memory we make is encoded in our brains” — Prof Iroise Dumontheil, Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development 

So, what can we actually do to make sure that we aren’t doing untold damage to our brains as we scroll through memes, order food, and, erm, read online articles on our phones? “I think it’s important to consider how we’re using apps,” says Dumontheil, “and what activities we are not doing because we spend so much time on the apps.” 

“Is it interfering with our sleep? Is it interfering with our work? Have we stopped doing some hobbies we used to enjoy? Are we neglecting talking to our partners and children when we are home? If it’s the case then maybe you should consider setting yourself limits to how much you are using your phone — ironically there are apps for that!!”