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Pitt students share high screen-time usage, worry over its increasing prevalence in their lives

When Kate Ryan, a sophomore psychology major, checked her screen time on her phone, she found she had an average of over seven hours a day. She said she spends 60% of her time looking at a screen, sometimes in a daze. 

“My daily average [screen time] is seven hours and 20 minutes,” Ryan said. “Sometimes I’ll close out of TikTok and then I’ll just go right back, and I don’t even realize I’m doing that,” Ryan said. 

Screen time increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to student-conducted research from Utah State University. Out of the 46 students interviewed, over 50% of them had weekly screen time averages of 50 or more hours. Several Pitt students, like Ryan, struggle with the same issue. According to sociology professor Jackie Smith, in earlier years 2 to 3 hours of screen time per day was considered “a problem.” 

“If you average that out and think about how much of people’s lives they are looking, just on their phones, an upwards of six, seven hours a day. That’s much higher than averages that I’ve seen elsewhere and earlier,” Smith said. “The trend has been towards more screen time. But even two hours a day was seen as a problem.”

Kara Johansen, a sophomore public service major, said she had an average of about three hours a day on her phone. She said she found this surprising, as she often found herself moving back and forth between different social media apps. 

“I actually had to start, for several reasons, getting into meditation to clear my mind,” Johansen said. “It’s so overstimulating, I’ll go on TikTok when nothing’s good on Instagram and then I feel like I’m just going between Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat.”

For Johansen, she often uses TikTok and other forms of social media to take a break from schoolwork. She said this doesn’t really make her feel any better and also leaves her feeling empty and even more anxious. 

“I always find it interesting because I’m on my computer to do work and then I take a break for self-care, I go on my phone, which is just another screen,” Johansen said. “It’s really tricky, because you see things that make you laugh and that makes you happy, but then afterwards, you kind of feel a little bit depressed or like you are procrastinating with it. So it’s a danger. 

Lia Sheahan, a sophomore English literature major, said while she averages less than 3 hours of screen time a day on her phone, she spends 8 to 9 hours a day on her iPad. 

“It’s just I feel like I have to have it open all through class because I’m taking notes. And then the work kind of follows me around everywhere. So I’m always like, ‘I’m just going to do a little bit of work,’ but then it’s also something that’s so distracting because all my social media is on my iPad,” Sheahan said. “I just get sucked into it. So I don’t know what screen time is for classes and what’s for fun — it just kind of blurs together. And then it ends up being, like, eight to nine hours a day sometimes.”

Smith said she is worried for the future health and well-being of students.

“I’m worried that there’s going to be a lot of physical effects and debilitating physical effects that we’re going to see,” Smith said. “And because phones, or devices, just draw people into and narrow people’s attention away from the people around them, I think that has some serious damaging effects that sociologists are starting to understand a little more.”

According to Sheahan, Canvas causes high screen time and stress for students. 

“I would say in college, especially now, there is no real world anymore. I think the whole thing with Canvas, now your work follows you everywhere and the digital world has to follow you everywhere,” Sheahan said. “It just drags school into every corner of a student’s life and I don’t like it.”

Johansen said the ability for teachers to contact students whenever without limitations, especially during days off, is bad for students’ mental health. 

“I would say even on weekends, it’s really hard to just take a complete break. Like it’s just a constant thing of checking what you have to do and trying to do little bits. It’s not a good separation,” Johansen said. 

According to Smith, the lack of boundaries between work, school and personal lives is causing students to become increasingly distracted. She asks students not to bring devices to class and instead use pen and paper if possible. Additionally, she said she prefers to talk to students during office hours than over email, because she feels that she doesn’t have a break from work herself. 

“I was finding that I couldn’t teach the same way because students weren’t able to pay attention,” Smith said. “And, increasingly, the devices are showing up in my classroom and becoming distractions that we keep. I tell students ‘I really don’t want devices in the classroom, I don’t want to see them’ … I was trying to keep these devices out of people’s attention so that they can pay attention to the room and be part of a class. A class to me is a dialogue, a collective learning space.”

While Johansen said too much use of technological devices can lead to anxiety, they are still beneficial as she notes they help connect people. 

“It totally contributes to anxiety, but I also use it as a way to stay in touch,” Johansen said. “We have friends who live across campus, and I don’t get to see them during the week a lot. So just to know what’s going on in their lives, I have to look at their private stories, but then that’s also distracting and just causes more issues. So it’s good and bad.”

Sheahan said reading during downtime as opposed to going on her phone helps with screen time. She said sometimes she struggles with self-control, so she also restricts her phone screen time usage. 

“I definitely feel better when I force myself to read a book instead of using my phone for downtime … I feel like it improves my focus so much and reduces anxiety,” Sheahan said. “And then, I actually gave my downtime screen time password to my roommate and only she knows the password. So it shuts off after an hour because I cannot control myself.” 

Ryan said turning off notifications helps her get rid of distractions and limit stress. 

“Putting my phone on ‘Do Not Disturb’ has been really helpful, because I’m not even thinking about if people are texting me or anything,” Ryan said.

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