I recently agreed to do something very stupid: subject myself to as much screen time as possible over the span of 48 hours. Starting at 10am on a Monday morning and carrying through to 10am on the Wednesday morning, I had to be exposed to at least one screen for as much of that time as possible. The results were… interesting.
While I worked, slept, ate, or even went to the toilet, a screen was present. The only breaks I had were for showers and a single trip to the shops (three minutes down the road) to stock up on food. Suffice to say, it wasn’t fun.
I generally try to avoid screens for at least an hour or two before I go to sleep. For these two days, doing so wasn’t an option.
The “Before” Cognitive Tests
Briallyn Smith, one of the authors here at MakeUseOf, has a degree in psychology, so she put together a battery of tests for me to take before and after my two days of excessive screen time. As well as filling out an emotional mood survey, I had to play eight cognitive games from Cambridge Brain Sciences.
Here’s what Briallyn had to say about the design of the tests:
There were several important considerations when planning the cognitive testing for this experiment:
1. Because Harry is the only participant in this study, we had to compare his performance to himself. This meant that he had to do two sets of cognitive testing – one before his 48 hours of screen time exposure, and the second after the 48 hours had ended.
2. Cognitive abilities aren’t a single measurement. The brain is incredibly complex, and different parts of your cognitive abilities are affected differently by different stimuli. For this reason, we had Harry complete an entire battery of tests that measured his performance in memory, planning, concentration, and reasoning activities, as well as a survey that gave us some indication of his emotional state.
3. A certain amount of extrapolation is required with any cognitive test. In this case, it looks as though Harry is completing silly games that don’t have any bearing on his actual cognitive function. However, all of these games have been developed based on pre-existing and scientifically-sound assessments that have been used in psychological testing for years. For this reason, we can assume that changes in his scores on these tests are a legitimate depiction of what his cognitive abilities are in these broader areas.
So yeah, science! To be blunt, doing the tests was awful. Calling them games is really stretching the definition of the word. A Stroop test is not a game; it’s a digital torture simulation. One of the worst parts of the whole experiment was suffering through the hour-long test battery. Twice.
After completing the battery of tests, I quickly began questioning my own sanity. I’m quite an extroverted person and normally leave the house at least a few times a day. On a regular day, I’ll go to the gym, head to the village for lunch, and maybe meet a friend for a drink, while squeezing in a couple of hours writing. One of the hardest things to deal with initially was the knowledge that I just couldn’t do any of that.
Instead of working — which I probably should have been doing — I binge-watched a load of TV and read a lot of my Instapaper queue.
I even went as far as to read (and share!) a Daily Mail article. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Although in my defense, it was a pretty damn good one.
After about eight hours I considered turning to alcohol to get me through the rest of the experiment but I resisted the idea.
I mainly just binge-watched stuff I hadn’t had the chance to see previously. I don’t watch a lot of television or movies because most of my free time is spent out of the house.
On the first day, I made it 17 hours before I decided to head to bed.
Unfortunately, I suspected I was in for a poor night’s sleep. Not only had I been looking at screens right up until the moment I decided to close my eyes, but I’d have screens running throughout the night. My desktop screen was on, casting light all around my room and, propped up next to my face, my iPad was playing a continuous stream of YouTube videos. I even kept the volume on.
All of this had a major effect on my sleep. It took me a lot longer than normal to fall asleep. I woke up multiple times and couldn’t get back to sleep. I didn’t feel rested when I woke in the morning.
Altogether, it was completely miserable.
With the lack of good sleep, Day Two started with me going entirely off the rails. Wibble.
I didn’t tweet anywhere near as much. I felt lethargic and miserable. I tried to distract myself by playing some PlayStation but nothing really helped. I generally just went a little bit stir crazy. It was like I was sick.
With eight hours to go in the stupid experiment, and absolutely wrecked from my lack of sleep the night before, I headed to bed. Again, I was subjected to my iPad and desktop screens throwing light into the room. It sucked.
I slept really badly. A little better than the night before because I was more tired, but still not well at all. When I woke up I just messed around on Facebook until it was time for me to finally finish up the awful cognitive tests.
The “After” Cognitive Tests
The tests sucked just as much the second time around. If I really wanted to make someone suffer I’d insist they spend a week just trying to improve at one of these games.
Doing the tests, I felt the effects of what I’d been putting myself through. I found it much harder to concentrate on the games. On the first day they’d been boring but I could still focus on the tasks, on the second day my mind wandered a lot more and I just felt a lot worse. I eventually got through them all.
My subjective misery appears to have come through in the results. I’ll hand back over to Briallyn for the summary:
So, did the screen time have an effect on Harry’s cognitive abilities? There were definitely some interesting results from our tests.
There weren’t any real shifts in Harry’s tests that dealt with memory or planning. His ability to remember a string of numbers stayed constant, as did his ability to accurately plan a sequence of actions.
What was interesting were the effects of screen time on Harry’s concentration and reasoning abilities.
Something that’s important to keep in mind with cognitive testing is that, in general, we should see a gradual improvement in test scores over time as the participant becomes familiar with the task and learns how to complete it more quickly and accurately. For this reason, if we see a decrease in a score during this experiment, it means that the effect on the brain is pronounced.
In one of the concentration tests, Harry was required to examine two complex patterns and determine whether or not they were identical. On his first test (before his exposure to screens), Harry scored an impressive 169 points, but after his 48 hours of the experiment he scored only 121. This was echoed in his other concentration-based test that had him determining whether or not two polygons were identical. His pre-experiment score was 58, and his post-experiment score was 43, another large drop.
A similar trend was seen in tests that focused on Harry’s ability to reason through problems. The “Double Trouble” test he completed (based on the Stroop test that will be familiar to most Psychology students) measures one’s ability to selectively focus on a single component of a problem while inhibiting the rest of the brain from providing irrelevant information. Harry’s ability to do this dropped over the course of this experiment, falling from a pre-experiment score of 41 to a post-experiment score of 34.
Another reasoning test, ‘Odd One Out’, is based on tests that are often used to determine general IQ in intelligence testing. In this test reasoning and logic must be used to identify one object in a set that does not belong. Harry’s first score was a 16, but it dropped to 12 after the experiment was complete.
Lastly, it’s important to note the changes that Harry experienced in his emotional state over the experiment. His live tweets give a pretty good indication of how his emotions fluctuated over the 48 hours, but we also had him complete the PANAS (Positive And Negative Affect Schedule) test both before and after his 48 hours. This test is intended to measure a participant’s emotional state at the time that the test is taken.
Some parts of Harry’s mood did not shift significantly, namely his level of excitement, guilt, fear, shame, nervousness, and restlessness. Interestingly enough, despite his test results, Harry felt that his attentiveness level was “a little” both before and after his 48 hours of screen exposure.
There were some decided shifts in Harry’s mood, however. His level of interest diminished from “Quite a bit” to “a little”, and his level of hostility shifted from “very slightly or not at all” to “moderately” while his level of enthusiasm shifted from “moderately” to “very slightly or not at all” (is this directly related to the fact that he hates psych tests? Potentially.)
Changes were also seen in Harry’s self-perceived alertness (“moderately” to “a little”), inspiration (“moderately” to “a little”), determination (“moderately” to “a little”), pride (“extremely” to “a little”) and activity (“moderately” to “a little or not at all”).
In conclusion, based on the results of Harry’s cognitive assessments, I would say that he definitely experienced a negative shift in his emotional state, a decrease in his reasoning and problem solving abilities, and definite losses in his ability to concentrate as a result of the 48 hours he spent under constant exposure to screens.
Putting This All to Bed
So what does this all mean? There were definitely major differences in how I felt, and how I performed in the cognitive tasks after the two days of screen exposure. The problem is separating what caused the effects.
I was both exposed to screens for two days, and sleep deprived from being exposed to screens for two days. How much the actual screens affected me and how much they did so indirectly through the sleep deprivation is impossible to extrapolate.
Regardless, I don’t think being locked away staring at a screen for two days is good for anyone. Getting out and doing things, and having some novelty and social interaction in your life, is hard to replicate in front of a screen.
The first thing I did when the time ended was go for a walk outside. It was such a relief. And there’s a lesson here for anyone and everyone who spends far too much staring at screens day in, day out. Which is to look up once in a while, and realize there’s far more to life than this.
What do you think of my stupid suffering? Do you think you would have held up better under such conditions? How many hours a day do you spend staring at screens? And do you think it’s harmful in any way, shape, or form? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below.