Too Much of a Good Thing during Lockdown

22 Oct 2020

While correlations can leave room for speculation as to cause and effect, a new study relates excessive screen time – especially of the more frivolous variety – with lower levels of perceived well-being during COVID-19-related confinement. Charo Sádaba was part of the research team.

STI Experts

Restricted to their homes as a consequence of efforts to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, people all over the world experienced firsthand the two sides of the technology and social media coin. At the same time as technology connected people to their work, their studies, and their social circles, and facilitated shopping and red-tape to everyone’s benefit, it also tempted many to abuse its possibilities to their detriment. 

To gauge how people’s use of their obligatory stay-at-home time had influenced them psychologically, the study “Personal Well-Being and the Use of Technology in Confinement” surveyed almost 10,000 individuals in 11 Spanish-speaking countries (Spain, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela) between March 29 and June 20, 2020. The researchers were particularly interested in measuring the impact that technology might have had on how people coped with unprecedented isolation and restrictions on movement. It took into account total screen time as compared to previous routines, as well as considering the particular types of online engagement reported. It also explored which groups had suffered most from the lockdown, and which behaviors – online or offline – had produced more positive or more negative effects on people’s self-reported state of mind.

The results revealed that 83% of those surveyed considered their well-being to have taken a turn for the worse because of the restrictions – 45% of them feeling somewhat worse, 28% quite a bit worse, and 10% substantially worse. Young people, women and the less-educated of all ages reported lower levels of well-being than did men, over-fifties and those with university or advanced degrees. What a large majority had in common was an increase in hours spent in front of a screen. 70% reported a significant increase, 27% a slight increase, and only 3% no increase at all. In terms of hours, average screen time during confinement hit 9 hours and 16 minutes.

Not all of that time was leisure. In fact, more than half of it – around five-and-a-quarter hours – was dedicated to keeping up with work or study. Professionals worked more than students studied – averaging 6 hours and 43 minutes and 4 hours and 52 minutes, respectively. The remaining screen time was used to communicate with friends and family, to surf the internet and social media, to watch movies and series, and to play videogames. 

These particularities of use revealed different outcomes in the users, both related to the content consumed and the motivation behind seeking that content. People who recognized that they used technology as an escape from their uncomfortable reality were the most likely to report feeling lower. Other uses, like filling time, snooping into other people’s lives, getting information on coronavirus, consuming pornography and betting online were also associated with decreased well-being. For all uses beyond work or study, the longer the time spent, the lower the well-being.

On the other hand, people who devoted time to offline pursuits – painting, cooking, reading, music, and physical activity in particular – reported higher levels of both physical and psychological well-being. There were, however, differences in outcomes between groups. Younger people fared worse than older people even with similar online and offline time use. The researchers postulated that the lack of social contact might have hit younger people harder and that the interruption to their usual routines was more marked. Similarly, preexisting relationship quality was also an important factor in resilience under lockdown. Unsurprisingly, those whose relationships at home were strained before confinement suffered the forced togetherness, while those who had rewarding family relationships enjoyed the opportunity to share time together. Relationship quality was also important with regard to social circles, as those with strong support groups felt supported even at a distance, while those with more fragile social relations wound up feeling more isolated.