I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of time. This fascination began when the legend, Mohamed Ali, broke down in an interview exactly how he would spend his retirement – after accounting for the time he would need for sleep, travel and entertainment, he arrived at what he labelled as ‘productive years’ left to live. To his audience’s amazement, it was only 16 years (he was only 35 years old at the time). Forty-two years later, we developed the Plano Time Machine – a platform that uses smart algorithms to compute your productive years. But unlike 26 years ago, before the dawn of the smartphone revolution, we now have to factor in the amount of time we will spend staring at our tiny screens.
In less than 2 months, Time Machine has collected data from thousands of people from 43 countries worldwide, and this represents the first time such data have been collected across the world through an online platform. Insights gleaned from the Time Machine are absolutely alarming.
A subgroup analysis of our cohort of teenagers aged 13 to 19 years old revealed that in countries such as India, Bangladesh, Singapore and Malaysia, the amount of time spent on smart devices is between 6 and 9 hours per day, and this does not even factor in the possibility of individuals’ tendency to underestimate their screen time. Over a lifetime, this accumulates to tens of years spent staring at tiny screens. For example, here in Singapore, teens on average spend close to 15 years (8 hours a day), or 33% of their productive waking years – assuming 7 to 8 hours of sleep per day – on their devices.
These findings are dauntingly consistent with existing research. One study found that American teenagers spend more than 7 hours a day on their smart devices. The age at which smart devices are being used is also getting younger – as many as 97% of children aged 4 years and three-quarters of children as young as 1 year use devices every day. Unfortunately, the increasing rate of integration of mobile technology into almost every aspect of human life will continue to perpetuate these worrying trends.
plano Time Machine’s findings indicate that teenagers worldwide are putting themselves at major risk of adverse health outcomes associated with excessive screen time. These include, a significantly increased risk of anxiety and depression, serious eye conditions including myopia, and a range of potentially fatal systemic illnesses including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.
Beyond this, the personal trade-offs of excessive screen time are vast. Time flows in one direction, and young people the world over who live on a digital diet will never get back those 8 hours that they spend on devices every day.
And at what cost? What are they sacrificing to stay connected? Time lost to devices could have been spent with loved ones, socialising and forming new beautiful relationships with others, experiencing the vast outdoors, travelling the world, learning a language, an instrument or another skill; and the list goes on.
At the end of the day, will they be able to answer one of life’s most fundamental questions – How did I spend my time on Earth? – with no regrets? It is blatantly clear from our results that for many, the answer will be a resounding no.
This demonstrates unequivocally that we need to stimulate behaviour change among young people at a global level with regards to their relationship with their devices. Individuals need to internalise the consequences of their actions and confront the uncomfortable reality that their screen time is interfering with leading a more fulfilling, meaningful life. At a societal level, better management of screen time will reduce the public health and economic burden we are seeing with the epidemic of adverse health outcomes associated with excessive use devices. Let’s use smart devices as the tools they are, and not allow them to make tools of us.