Smartphone Screen Time: Self-reported estimates are inaccurate because mobile devices distort time perception

Master Thesis


Permanent link to this Item
Journal Title
Link to Journal
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Cyberpsychological research aims to understand the increasingly prevalent humansmartphone interaction. Investigation of factors influencing screen time (i.e., the amount of time spent actively using the device) is a core element of this research. This thesis presents two studies investigating associations between smartphone screen time and subjective time perception. Study 1 compared differences between self-reported and objective screen time in a sample of undergraduate students. It also investigated the influence of individual difference factors, and COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, on screen time. Participants (N = 267, 18–25 years) completed scales measuring depression, anxiety, and smartphone attachment, and estimated their screen time. Thereafter, they sent screenshots of their screen time as measured automatically by their iPhone software. Some (n = 24) shared that objective data again during the COVID-19 lockdown. Self-reports either underestimated actual use (when screen time was objectively tracked over 10 days, including two weekends; p < .001). or overestimated it (when it was tracked over 7 days only; p = .010.). Use was heavier over weekends and screen time increased significantly during the lockdown (p = .001). Finally, smartphone attachment mediated the relationship between objective screen time and depression. Study 1 concluded that iPhone tracking features can reliably collect objective screen time data, and that screen time is significantly influenced by both individual difference factors and environmental context. Study 2 aimed to understand the mechanisms underlying differences between objective and subjective screen time estimates. The time-emotion paradox proposes that emotional conditions affect time perception. Because, subjectively, smartphones are pleasure providing and anxiety-alleviating devices, previous research suggests they might facilitate time distortion. To test whether time spent using a smartphone will feel shorter while time without it will feel longer, we assigned participants (N = 55; 18–25 years) to either a Smartphone Present or a Smartphone Absent condition and then had them wait alone while being video recorded and having their heart rate monitored. After 13.5 minutes, they estimated the waiting period's duration. As predicted, all Smartphone Present participants used their devices during the waiting period and significantly underestimated its duration, p < .001. Unexpectedly, Smartphone Absent participants also underestimated the duration, p < .001, and were no more anxious than Smartphone Present participants, ps > .550. However, Smartphone Absent participants showed more signs of both boredom and productivity, ps < .042. Hence, it appears those participants found engaging ways to occupy themselves, thus facilitating their time underestimations. Study 2 concluded that although smartphone use was apparently so pleasant that it distorted time perception, smartphone absence was not so aversive as to distort it in the opposite direction.