Surprise: Screen time good for productivity? As long as its ‘mindful,’ study finds

SAN DIEGO — There’s no shortage of studies telling us to spend less time on our smartphones, but one surprising piece of research finds time spent scrolling may not be entirely wasted after all. Study authors report smartphones can actually enhance productivity if used in a focused, “mindful” fashion.

Conducted by Kaveh Abhari of San Diego State University and Isaac Vaghefi of City University of New York, the study finds that mindful use of smartphones, without necessarily minimizing screen time, enhances productivity. Researchers say using pre-existing smartphone apps to monitor screen time can promote “focused or mindful cellphone usage,” which consequently leads to higher perceived productivity and user satisfaction.

The research team initially set out to see if self-regulatory actions could lead to modified user behaviors fostering more positive smartphone outcomes.

“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,” says Abhari in a press release. “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.”

A group of 469 university undergraduate students living in either California, New York, or Hawaii were surveyed for this project. The three-week poll asked all participants to complete four questionnaires. Meanwhile, about half were also instructed to download a screen-monitoring application to their phones. The app gave users the ability to monitor and set limits or goals for their smartphone screen time.

While analyzing the ensuing survey results, researchers measured the perceived productivity of screen time reported by respondents, as well as the amount of screen time and the fatigue associated with self-monitoring. Participants’ contentment with their productivity achieved through cellphone screen time was also reviewed. “Self-monitoring appears necessary to encourage the optimized use of smartphones,” Abhari adds. “The results suggest that optimizing but not minimizing screen time is more likely to increase user productivity.”

It’s important to note, however, that self-monitoring also led to fatigue and could hamper productivity. That being said, researchers say this was not a significant factor affecting the relationship between self-monitoring and contentment with productivity achievement.

In summation, Abhari and Vaghefi conclude that while unrestrained cellphone use can certainly have a negative impact on one’s life, monitored screen time (especially monitored screen time with specific goals set) can actually promote positive outcomes and higher overall user satisfaction.

“This study could lead system developers to embed features into mobile devices that enable self-monitoring,” Abhari concludes. “These features could improve quality screen time and enhance the relationship between humans and digital technology.”

The study is published in AIS Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction.

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