Digital wellbeing

Over the years, the things we consume have come in for a mixture of good and bad press. As adults, we still can’t be sure if we should have more or less red wine and red meat. For children, reading, homework, watching TV and playing video games have all, in various eras, been considered to be harmful.

Our relationship with new technology has always had upsides and downsides; the advent of AI and robotics has sent most into a tailspin, but there’s more and more evidence to support the positive contribution they will make to society. Now we’re into the 12th year of smartphone use, we’re starting to be clearer on the positives and negatives of its mainstream use in the UK.

Smartphones give us access to facilities and services that can better our wellbeing from the ability to relax and be entertained wherever we want (62% of our respondents said they played on their phones while relaxing at home), to more actively beneficial things such as health monitoring, fitness tracking and mindfulness apps.

Around 88% of people use smartphones, and around 95% of smartphones are used every day. But are we in control of it? Many of us reach for our phones shortly after waking, while younger age groups are known to find it hard to put their phones down at night.

So, it’s not surprising that 40% of our survey respondents think they overuse their smartphones. Yet, most don’t do anything about it.

Most smartphones now have built-in tools to monitor use. Apple offers Screen Time as standard in its operating system, Google offers Digital Wellbeing to owners of its Pixel devices, and there are multiple apps available to download for free, such as ActionDash. All these tools can help to frame usage by time or by specific app, but are only used by 8% of us – and don’t necessarily lead to a change in behaviour.

Users do try a range of other measures – such as muting volume and putting the phone out of reach – but 29% take none of these steps, and may simply ignore their overuse and its potential consequences.

When it comes to evidence-based research and official advice regarding phone usage – particularly for children – the findings and recommendations vary, and can be interpreted as much by bias as fact.

Some studies have said that children who spend more time on screens seem less happy than those who played sports, read or socialise face to face instead. Guidance from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health recommends that screens are avoided for an hour before bedtime. In, Colorado, there’s a move by the Parents Against Underage Smartphones to go further and ban sales of smartphones for use by under 13 year olds altogether.

On the other hand, a 2019 study published by the University of Oxford found that, across a sample of 17,000 teenagers, using screens two hours, one hour, or half an hour before bedtime had no clear associations with adolescent wellbeing.

But whether its children or adults, there’s no one answer to what constitutes healthy practice. Phone use is nuanced and needs context. Picking up a phone for eight seconds may darken the mood at a family gathering, but another person’s eight hours may be dedicated to pleasure or productivity – work or study; finessing language skills; completing a crossword.

It’s as much about how you use your phone as it is how often you use it. So, despite our handsets representing the very pinnacle of modern technology, perhaps it’s an old adage that should guide us: everything in moderation.