Screen time harming in-person connection, studies say

BYU student, Annika Ohran, looks at her phone while walking on campus. While screen time can be used as a great way to connect with others, there are several harms associated with it as well. (Mckenna Schmidt)

When screen time is used as a primary way of connecting with others and the world, it can be harmful to healthy mental states and interpersonal relationships, according to a study by two professors from San Diego State University and the University of Georgia.

Additional studies have shown the effect of depression on quality of life and relationships, demonstrating how those affected experience decreased feelings of social belonging and perceived worse social interactions.

BYU religious education professor Jenet Erickson received her Ph.D. in family social science and believes real-life relationships are a fundamental pillar that cannot be replaced by a screen. 

“There’s no question we have a massive crisis,” Erickson said in regard to the issues surrounding screen time.

For Erickson, two factors lead to damage in a relational capacity. The first factor Erickson described is the initial disconnect from our physical reality. She said as we use screen time as a buffer for our emotions or the anxieties of life, “the capacity to be really deeply connected to ourselves can be fractured.” 

The second factor is the distorted perception of self caused by the constant “managed image,” in Erickson’s words, maintained on social media where human beings are not actually seen in fullness — imperfections, weaknesses, fears and the spectrum of emotions.

BYU professor, Jenet Erickson, comments on the impact of screen time. (Mckenna Schmidt)

“The whole process of being deeply seen, known and loved that human beings absolutely have to have to thrive is compromised,” Erickson said.

This compromise caused by social media is highlighted in a number of studies mentioned by Erickson, including recent data from 2022 revealing what occurred when Facebook was first rolled out at college campuses. Since the initial roll-out of Facebook in 2004, exposure, time used and the number of social media apps increased dramatically. The study showed, however, the almost immediate adverse effects of social media on mental health, leading to an increase in depression.

With the increased disconnect from the physical world and connection, Erickson offered a potential solution to create balance and allow for the preservation of connection to self and others.

“There’s got to be a way for us to self-regulate our lives without numbing out to reality,” Erickson said.

Sadie Jacobsen, a BYU sophomore studying pre-early childhood education, acknowledged both the positives and negatives of screen time. Jacobsen said her phone allows her to talk to anyone at any time and have easy access to her scriptures and music. However, according to Jacobsen, “I have seen it waste a lot of time I could have spent building relationships.”

While smartphones make it possible to do everything all at once on one device, Erickson suggested a way to mitigate the mental health and relational effects is to “guard our hours.” In other words, being more intentional in guarding time with family, nature, oneself and with whatever else is important in a person’s life.

Mitzi Abalos, BYU sophomore and human resources major from Georgia, recently returned home from her mission and found a shift in her relationship with social media — she does not love using social media as her means of connecting with people and, like Erickson suggested, makes real-life physical relationships her priority. 

“I feel like you’re missing out on so many parts of a person — their tone, humor, gestures … it doesn’t feel as real,” Abalos said.

This realization led her to put down her phone and connect with her roommates or work on her school assignments. Abalos also described how comparison fueled by social media use lessened in her life due to the time she had on her mission to connect deeply with herself and others. 

“I found out about who I was and who I was to God … I really learned to love myself,” Abalos said.

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