A different pace

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An article in the New York Times this week raises an interesting conundrum about people — across all ages — using devices for information and entertainment.

In fact, it may be true that the argument we are getting dumber as a result of too much screen time is a fallacy. Data suggests the opposite might be true.

For certain, younger Americans are quick to point out to adults that they can find information faster; they can multitask better; and when standing in line or at other idle times, they are actually being productive. (The definition of "productivity" could be more aptly debated.)

According to the article: "Consider what a person can do in just the time it takes to wait for a bus: text, watch a comedy skit, play a video game, buy concert tickets, take five selfies, each with a different set of cartoon ears."

Social scientists say learning how that behavior shapes an individual's life experience requires an entirely new approach, one that recognizes that screen time is no mere habit but now a way of life.

That seismic shift in perception was recently argued in the journal Human-Computer Interaction. The phrase "screen time," authors noted, is too broad to be scientifically helpful; it cannot remotely capture the fragmented, ever-shifting torrent of images that constitutes digital experience.

According to the article, researchers have linked daily time spent on specific platforms, like Facebook, to measures of well-being and mental health. But to build a more compelling understanding of the effects of digital experience, they'll need far more, the new paper argues. Scientists need to look over people's shoulders, digitally speaking, and record everything, on every device, that an individual sees, does and types. The researchers call this ultra-fine-grained record a "screenome," adapting the concept from "genome," the full blueprint of one's genetic inheritance. Each person's daily screenome is similarly unique, a sequential, disjointed series of screens.

What might seem like a frenetic pace to many is the new normal for most young people — and even many adults. The argument becomes, the experts maintain, we actually may be evolving into higher-functioning beings.

A paper written by researchers from Penn State University, Boston University, Apple Inc. and Toyota Research Institute is based on exactly what those "threads" look like, and how individuals respond to them.

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In arguing to develop such an approach, the researchers presented the digital threads of several dozen people, recorded with consent: screenshots taken every few minutes for periods ranging from a day to several days. Those records showed that people switched from one screen activity to another continually, every 20 seconds on average, and rarely spent more than 20 minutes uninterrupted on any one activity, even a full-length movie.

Perhaps most intriguing, the paper presented color-coded graphs of the digital threads of 30 college students, monitored over four days. The graphs revealed wide differences in what people used their screens for, as well as in their patterns of switching from one kind of activity, like email, to another, such as entertainment or news. Some people sprinkle brief periods of work between huge chunks of streaming movies and YouTube, for instance; others appear to be bouncing between email, work and news sites compulsively.

Researchers also could examine screen time to predict other factors.

The most commonly cited downside of excessive screen time is low mood, or depression. In a recent study, researchers examined (with permission) the Facebook activity of 114 people diagnosed with depression. Using machine-learning algorithms, the team analyzed the content of the users' posts from the months and years before receiving the diagnosis, and compared these to the posts of similar people who did not go on to develop depression.

The analysis found differences in how frequently certain kinds of words appeared. For instance, people who later received a depression diagnosis talked about themselves on Facebook measurably more often than people who did not develop the mood problem. The analysis, while small by big-data standards, was the first to link to diagnoses in medical records, and it solidified previous correlations between online language content and low moods.

It is a fascinating sign of our times.

"How much screen time is too much" is a puzzle for a past era, the article concludes.

What we are looking at, and how we are using that information, are different issues altogether.

— The Times-Argus


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