Surprising Findings – Does Reducing Screen Time Increase Productivity?

Teenager Smartphone Glow Bed

The study found that using existing smartphone apps to track cellphone screen time may improve focused or mindful cellphone use, leading to greater perceived productivity and user satisfaction.

New research suggests that mindful use of smartphones may enhance productivity.

Have you ever been accused (or accused someone else) of spending too much time staring at your phone? It seems that the time might not be entirely squandered after all.

A recent study by Kaveh Abhari of San Diego State University and Isaac Vaghefi of the City University of New York found that monitoring cellphone screen time with the help of existing smartphone applications can improve focused or mindful cellphone usage, which in turn increases perceived productivity and user satisfaction. The study was recently published in the journal AIS Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction (THCI).

The Positive Effect of Self-Monitoring

While a lot of research has focused on the negative effects of cellphone screen time (tolerance, withdrawal, and conflict with work-related tasks), Abhari and Vaghefi’s study sought to see if self-regulatory behaviors could result in changed user behavior. Abhari is an associate professor of management information systems at SDSU’s Fowler College of Business. Vaghefi is an assistant professor of information systems at the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College.

“We theorized that individuals who tracked their cellphone usage and set goals surrounding that usage tended to have enhanced productivity and contentment with their productivity as they met their stated objectives,” said Abhari. “Previous research has shown that goal setting tends to raise performance expectations and we wanted to see if this theory held true for smartphone screen time as well.”

Putting it to the Test

To make this determination, the researchers surveyed 469 participating university undergraduate students in California, New York, and Hawaii. The three-week survey required all participants to complete four questionnaires and about half of them were required to download a screen-monitoring application to their phones. This app allowed users to monitor and set limits or goals with their cellphone screen time.

When the results were analyzed, researchers measured the perceived productivity of screen time reported by those surveyed, as well as the amount of screen time and the fatigue associated with self-monitoring. They also reviewed participants’ contentment with their productivity achieved through cellphone screen time. “Self-monitoring appears necessary to encourage the optimized use of smartphones,” said Abhari. “The results suggest that optimizing but not minimizing screen time is more likely to increase user productivity.”

The Effect of Fatigue

However, the researchers also found that self-monitoring induces fatigue and weakens the effect on productivity, though it was not a significant factor affecting the relationship between self-monitoring and contentment with productivity achievement.

In conclusion, Abhari and Vaghefi determined that while uncontrolled cellphone use (or cellphone addiction) could negatively impact people’s lives, monitored screen time — particularly monitored screen time with specific goals in mind — can result in positive outcomes and higher overall user satisfaction. “This study could lead system developers to embed features into mobile devices that enable self-monitoring,” said Abhari. “These features could improve quality screen time and enhance the relationship between humans and digital technology.”

Reference: “Screen Time and Productivity: An Extension of Goal-setting Theory to Explain Optimum Smartphone Use” by Kaveh Abhari and Isaac Vaghefi, 30 September 2022, AIS Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction.
DOI: 10.17705/1thci.00169

The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

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