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RS 237 - Andy Przybylski on "Is screen time bad for you?"

Release date: August 5th, 2019

Andrew Przybylski

It's common wisdom that spending a lot of time on your smartphone, or checking social media like Facebook and Twitter, takes a psychological toll. It makes us depressed, insecure, anxious, and isolated -- or so people say. But is there any research to back that up? Julia discusses the evidence with professor Andy Przybylski, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute.


Andy's website

Andy on Twitter

"The association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use," a 2019 paper by Andy, and Amy Orben, which we discuss in the episode (it compares the effect size for screen time with other things like eating potatoes, or being bullied)

"The Welfare Effects of Social Media," by Hunt Alcott et al (2019), the randomized controlled trial in which people were paid to deactivate their Facebook profiles, which we discuss in the episode

This thread by Jonathan Haidt contains some valuable debate over the screen time research, and links to a Google Doc in which Haidt and others summarize the top studies.

"Jurassic Park" by Michael Crichton is a book that influenced Andy as a kid - reread it through the lens of incentives in scientific research

Edited by Brent Silk

Music by Miracles of Modern Science

Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (22)

No surprise that the news media exaggerates and misrepresents subtle coincidences as a causal trend.

Scare tactics indeed do not work in the long run. Remember the "This is Your Brain on Drugs" public awareness commercial.

If the government attempts to censor the Internet, the government will almost certainly ruin it.
August 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
As much is I like the RS podcast, this was the first one I stopped listening to less than halfway through - the smugness of AP became unbearable at that point: „Everyone else‘s study designs are flawed! Everything is so much more complicated than people imagine. My studies (will) provide the definitive answer.“
He is the perfect example of a hyper-contrarian whose skepticism reaches a point where it simply does not allow him to acknowledge that the other side may have reasonable arguments as well. He‘s on a mission to prove that screen time is not bad for people, instead of trying to find out what the truth is.
Also, brushing aside any warnings of potential negative effects of new technologies by saying something like “well, that‘s what people have always done when new technologies have appeared on the scene and we’ve just turned out fine“ should be called out as what it is: lazy, irrelevant and very annoying! 1) just because some fears of certain technologies have turned out to be unwarranted is irrelevant for the discussion about the current technology; 2) only by raising concerns doe we get the chance of changing course; 3) some of the concerns raised about technologies in the past may have contributed to ameliorating their negative consequences.
Finally, the reason why the fear of excessive screen time gains so much traction in public discourse is because it resonates so strongly with most people’s everyday experiences. I have yet to meet a single person who would say that reducing screen time - not to speak of quitting social media altogether - did not have some sort of positive effect on their lives! And I have yet to meet a parent who says that giving their kids aged around 10 a smartphone did not have some negative effects on their behavior.
August 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterHW
You lost me at car accidents. Supposing we agree that setting a 10mph speed limit would reduce traffic deaths, could we likewise agree that limiting social media use would reduce suicides or mass shootings? If we can agree on that, then we can talk about trade-offs.

As far as "opportunity costs" of various interventions, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey admitted that Twitter already implemented a bunch of features such as "likes" and follower counts without giving much thought to their consequences.
It's like the debates about the ethics of resurrecting extinct species like mammoths. Seems scary until you realize that we didn't hesitate to kill them off in the first place.
August 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMax
Recent example. Cloudflare finally dropped 8chan after 8chan's founder urged its current owners to "do the world a favor and shut it off," after another 8chan-inspired mass shooting by a loser whose LinkedIn profile said, "I spend about 8 hours every day on the computer so that counts as technology experience I guess."

"The El Paso Shooting and the Gamification of Terror"
The most important takeaways from the El Paso shooting are twofold:
1. 8chan’s /pol board continues to deliberately radicalize mass shooters.
2. The act of massacring innocents has been gamified.
"Ever since the Christchurch shooting spree, 8chan users have commented regularly on Brenton Tarrant’s high bodycount, and made references to their desire to “beat his high score”.
What we see here is evidence of the only real innovation 8chan has brought to global terrorism: the gamification of mass violence. We see this not just in the references to “high scores”, but in the very way the Christchurch shooting was carried out. Brenton Tarrant livestreamed his massacre from a helmet cam in a way that made the shooting look almost exactly like a First Person Shooter video game. This was a conscious choice, as was his decision to pick a sound-track for the spree that would entertain and inspire his viewers."
August 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMax
@ HW: I think you should listen to the rest of the podcast. I will likely pleasantly surprise you !
August 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
I don't see the problem with studies about quitting something. If you want to test whether alcohol is bad for health, then make people quit drinking, and see if their health improves. Maybe it'll improve because they'll smoke less, or it'll get worse because they'll drink more soda, but either way the result is informative.
Extrapolating from short-term studies of small samples of college students is a general problem. Sure, bigger studies are better but cost more and take longer. If anything, long-term effects of quitting social media may be even better than short-term effects, after people reconnect with real life and don't miss social media.
August 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMax
It is a great article. You will surely like this also because it is a great stuff
August 6, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterpotty racers
I'm leaving this podcast feeling very confused about the effects of social media.

I hope you'll have another podcast on the same issue sometime soon. I take this one as strong evidence but I'm not just taking his word on how weak the existing evidence actually is.
August 8, 2019 | Unregistered Commentersty.silver
Thanks for sharing this wonderful thing. Keep sharing useful and more visible things like this. Thank you very much
August 9, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterfnaf
Does Andy even have the slightes clue what his own position might be? He obviously hasn't decided yet. All he knows for sure is that any study (other than his own, unpublished ones) on the subject is substantially flawed (even though he isn't able to state why exactly).

Why does Julia have to formulate his position for him without him doing any work at all? In the end he suddenly claims that what she described in the beginning wasn't his position at all, but he didn't care to state his position then. All Andy does is wiggle his way around dubious analogies.

What was that car example supposed to show? Julia does an excellent job in general, but this time she let too many things slip. (But, considering the amount of bs her guest was dropping, you can't really blame her.) Why didn't Julia catch up on that car thing? What about the "your critique holds true for _any_ other study of this type" argument?

Very disappointing episode, not worthy of the Rationally Speaking name, IMHO. Please get guests that actually know what they are talking about.

PS: "Haha, that's very positivist of you"? Andy, if you're reading this, do yourself a favor and look up “positivism.”
August 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria P.
I saw a tweet where Andy claimed that technology is not addictive. In this podcast, however, he suddenly changes his position and argues that we shouldn't trust tech companies if they create tools that enforce a moderate service consumption.

Honestly, I wasn't able to take anything away from this. I'm not even sure what Andy's position is because he seemed to contradict himself. And what in the name of the Lord was he trying to illustrated with those analogies? They all seemed off and didn't help his point in the least.
August 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Chubbs
I would just like to echo @ HW 's comments about this episode. This guest is difficult to listen to even though I'm interested in his thesis. There are theoretical causal mechanism(s) for the negative effects of screen time: 1. it gives people a constant flood of curated experiences to compare to their own life and 2. it reduces the amount of time people spend with each other, decreasing social skills. Online interaction is not a good substitute for the real world connections, see
August 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSJ
Like other commenters, I finished this episode more confused about the issue than I started. That's progress in a sense, but I think Andy could work on a clearer presentation of what he actually thinks, all things considered.

Andy's dismissive attitude toward an experiment where people are encouraged to quit social media and we see how their welfare changes (from 22m) was pretty baffling to me.
August 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob Wiblin
Andy--A very nice, subtle job. While listening, I kept going back to my formative days in college and my readings from Plato. I had read a particular copy of The Republic where the translator said 'the good' (lower case) was human consciousness, so I immediately started looking for it in my daily life. My first discovery was within a pun: simple puns are made up of a word with two bearers (e.g. duck--meaning a type of swimming bird; and duck--meaning move your head down) inside a larger phrase. When, as a listener, you get the pun there is an "ah ha" moment of happiness. Consciousness for a very brief moment expands and captures more bearers, and its very expansion causes happiness. Not the words or bearers--but their structure in relation to an individual's consciousness. The expansion of consciousness thru particular language mediums creates happiness.

Anyway, that particular jigsaw piece has woven itself into my post college life. I thought it might interest you . It's an elemental example of cognitive psychology--to my mind. Thank you for the broader mosaic.
August 13, 2019 | Unregistered Commentergms
This guy was unbelievably rude.
August 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTom
"In girls, the negative effects of social media were due to disrupted sleep, cyber-bullying and, to a lesser extent, lack of exercise. In boys, these factors had an impact, but it was much smaller."
August 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMax
On top of everything else, screen time before bed can disrupt sleep.
August 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMax
I know that Julia doesn't like when someone says “I can't believe [x]” (to point out how absurd they find the position in question), but I actually cannot believe that this guy is a professor.
August 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterVal-E
This was a fantastic listen, even by RS standards – and not least of all for Julia suddenly realizing that her opening wasn't quite what Professor Przybylski was all about. Apart from his occasional forgetting to finish his sentence before starting a new one, Prof. Andy did a great job putting the whole "controversy" in perspective. It's a relief to know that some smart people are pushing back against the very idea of thinking that there is a simple answer to any of these questions, never mind blame them for things which are actually the result of much more prevalent – but "less sexy" – problems.

Of course I have to doubt my own sanity when reading the comments and wondering if I heard the same interview as everyone else. Maybe the part about not jumping to conclusions based on very little and non-contextualized information didn't sink in for some?

BTW His lens on _Jurassic Park_ was a pretty good thought too, even if the problems with research funding are more complicated... woe oh so much more complicated...

Thanks for another great podcast, and #DownWithPotatoes!
August 18, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterswan
What about all the times when people almost crash into one another because their faces are so glued to their Smartphone screens. Isn't that type of screen time bad for us? Haven't people died because of this.... yikes =0
August 25, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto
amazing site i felt very happy
September 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAVG Key
By far the worst episode of this great podcast. If you didn‘t listen to it yet, do yourself a favor and skip it.
September 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterNathan

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