Opinion: We Might Need Stricter Screen Time Regulations

Opinion: We Might Need Stricter Screen Time Regulations

Reading time: 15 min

  • Andrea Miliani

    Written by: Andrea Miliani Tech Writer

  • Kate Richards

    Fact-Checked by Kate Richards Content Manager

I have been seeing phone addiction warnings and messages—and maybe wake-up calls—in the past few days, and decided to pay more attention. From the new “dumb phones trends” to celebrities coming out as addicted, to doctors requesting authorities take action now, to new laws banning addictive social feeds for teenagers.

Just a few days ago, the actor Woody Harrelson went viral for saying that he ditched his phone three years ago. Harrelson explained that he did it because he was addicted to his phone and was having difficulties setting limits for his screen time.

“Back then I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to set this limit. Two hours,’” said Harrelson on the Where Everybody Knows Your Name show. “I’ve already hit my limit at 9:30 am, so I woke up, and I’ve been on it two hours already because it can just keep going and going.”

National Geographic talked about how endless scrolling can literally make you sick in 2021—making us feel dizzy and nauseous—and reposted this story on Instagram just a few hours ago.

Even the ones behind the technology are suffering. Historic Vids recently shared a video on X of an interview with Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, where he says, “…if I’m looking at the device more than I’m looking into someone’s eyes, I’m doing the wrong thing.”

It’s not a recent interview, it’s from 2019, but the fact that it got over 7 million views on X within a few hours just last week reminds us not only that this issue is still relevant but also that we’ve been talking about phone addiction for years and finding solutions still doesn’t seem to be anyone’s priority.

The irony is a bit jarring when the man at the forefront of Apple’s new technologies, like phone mirroring, which are created so that you never miss a notification, says he doesn’t want to be a slave to his notifications.

And those notifications Cook mentions are part of the problem. A recent study conducted by behavioral experts showed that working people pick up their phones around 72 times a day and get, on average, 65 daily notifications.

It gets worse the younger they are, and another study confirms this. According to the non-profit organization Common Sense, teenagers get around 237 notifications a day and spend 4 to 5 hours on their screens daily.

A Ban For Teenagers: The Most Vulnerable Population

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy shared an opinion essay in the New York Times a few days ago warning about mental health in adolescents, the damage social media is doing to the young population, and requesting Congress to impose a warning label on the addictive platforms.

“The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency—and social media has emerged as an important contributor,” wrote Dr. Murthy. “It is time to require a surgeon general’s warning label on social media platforms, stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents.”

Dr. Murthy has been warning about these issues for years. And a few authorities have been listening. The state of New York recently passed a law protecting teens and children from addictive algorithm feeds.

Governor Kathy Hochul signed two bills requesting tech companies like TikTok and Instagram refrain from using recommendation algorithms for users under 18 years old. The proposal suggests instead displaying posts in chronological order. It also suggests disabling notifications during nighttime as well as prohibits these platforms from collecting data from underage users.

Sleep deprivation is one of the main concerns from experts, but most symptoms seen in teenagers are also very prominent in adults: anxiety, depression, isolation.

During an interview with Dr. Murthy about his essay for the New York Times Podcasts on YouTube, he explains why adolescents are more vulnerable.

“Adolescents are not little adults. They are fundamentally in a very different stage of brain development,” he says, “their impulse control hasn’t developed as much.” And continues, “One would argue it’s quite hard for adults to do that, by the way, but especially for young people, this is exceedingly hard.”

Are We More Addicted Than We Even Realize?

Can you easily share your screen time and social media use without feeling embarrassed or concerned? Resisting the urge to see notifications is hard for teenagers, for Harrelson, for Cook, and me.

I remember taking pride in tuning down my Instagram average time to just 1 minute a day in 2023. I went a whole year, most of 2022, without using the platform, and by the time I returned to it, I actually found I had little interest in the content.

“I’m cured!” I thought. I looked up my average Instagram screen time again yesterday and realized it went back up to an average of an hour a day. I’m going through a relapse, and I guess I never even noticed until now. I feel embarrassed, and actually, feeling that way is a sign of addiction.

To figure out whether you are addicted to your phone, you can ask yourself a few simple questions:

  • Do you frequently check your phone with no purpose?
  • Do you feel anxious, stressed, or irritable if you have to turn off your phone for a certain period?
  • Do you use it as a way to cope with negative emotions?
  • Do you hide your phone usage from others or feel shame or guilt for using it?

There are more questions and—I must confess—answering them got me a bit worried. So, we clearly have a problem, but what’s the solution?

Time Limits, Dumb Phones, and Digital Labels

When you go to Instagram’s settings to check your time spent, the application suggests break reminders every few minutes and day limits ranging from 15 minutes to 2 hours. TikTok lets you know when you’ve been using the platform for more than an hour and doesn’t let you keep watching unless you type the “difficult” code 1234.

Time limits are hard to control, which is why people—especially Gen Z—are opting for “dumb phones”. There’s a new trend of people buying phones that don’t have the capability to download traditional apps. Take a step back in time to when phones could only make phone calls, text using T9, and maybe even take a few terrible-quality photos.

A few weeks ago, Heineken and Bodega launched The Boring Phone to help people cut the addictive scrolling.

Dr. Murthy believes that digital labels on social media platforms could help too. “Evidence from tobacco studies show that warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior,” said Dr. Murthy in his essay.

But these solutions might not have a big impact on their own. Dr. Murthy also warns that labels alone won’t make social media safe; policymakers, social media companies, and society must act together.

Hopefully, these new laws to protect teens are a first step in the right direction, especially for safeguarding the development of children. As adults, the first step is awareness, and these laws should act as a way to start walking that path as well.

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