A Successful Intervention: Decreasing Cellular Screen Time in Teens

Whenever you use your cell phone, you probably don’t give it a second thought. But what if someone were to take your phone away from you for a day? One week? Two? Cell phones are ubiquitous. They are a part of our everyday life… could we really function without them?

The Ramifications of Screen Time

It is a well-known fact that screen time has bad effects on the brain. There are countless studies to back this up, yet people continue to glue their eyes to their screens until it becomes an addiction. Once they begin, they just can’t stop.

Spending too much time on a phone is correlated with mental health issues, depression, and even suicide. The youth spend hours on end on their phones, damaging their developing brains. Their ability to focus, communicate with others, and show empathy are all hindered — their memory, attention spans, and sleep cycles harmed.

Tweens (ages 8–12) average nearly six hours on their phones a day, and teens average nearly nine, according to Common Sense Media.

Outside of homework, minimizing peoples’ screen time to one or two hours a day can mitigate the deleterious effects described.

My Idea

For my Science Fair, I attempted to create an intervention to reduce screen time in middle school girls (the reason for solely focusing on females was because I attend an all-girls school).

I designed a sticker to go on the back of a phone, which had a color scheme of red on white with the message “Save your brain, decrease screen time” printed in bold. This is a very impactful combination often used in the market, as red is striking, symbolizing power and urgency, and a single statement triggers the brain and can be very effective.

How It Worked

I designed screen time surveys and distributed these to the classes of grades six, seven, and eight, which each student with ownership of a cell phone filled out. In this survey, students wrote if they would be willing to volunteer for the project or not.

The volunteers were asked to check their settings if they had the newest update. If they did, they immediately sent over their last seven days of screen time. The volunteers who did not have the update either installed the update, or got an app called Moment if they had an iPhone or QualityTime-MyDigitalDiet if they had an Android, and they tracked for the next seven days and sent over their data.

I carried out a randomized control trial on 31 student volunteers. A random number generator was used; each person was assigned a number and the application was used to randomly assign students to either the control group or the intervention group (As proof that the randomization process hopefully resulted in groups that were balanced in terms of known and unknown factors that could influence the outcome, the number of students in each grade was similar between the two groups).

The intervention group had 16 students, and the control group had 15. Neither of them was aware of what the project was about.

The intervention participants received the personally designed screen time stickers as visual cues. After one week, the participants and non-participants sent over their screen time.

The Result

Three Chi-Square tests were conducted to see if the intervention had a statistically significant impact on decreasing screen time. The p-value was 0.000603, which was significant at p < .05. This meant that there was a 0.06 percent probability that this finding was due to chance alone.

It was seen that the students in the control group didn’t see much change, on average increasing by about 5 minutes per person per day, whereas the intervention group saw a statistically significant impact, on average decreasing by 69 minutes per person per day. That is a huge change!

Project 2.0

The following year, I performed an extension on my previous project. I designed a phone wallpaper after doing thorough research about the influence this has on students.

Wallpapers may seem meaningless, simply acting as a background for a phone, but they are always chosen for a reason and hold importance in some aspect. Wallpapers subtly impact our day and the way we operate.

Luminous and vivid backgrounds make people feel happier, and feeling happy leads to better performance, whether it be academically or socially. Articles show that looking at a motivational and colourful wallpaper has better outcomes than looking at one that is dull and insignificant. Putting thought into a phone wallpaper can have more of an effect than one may think.

How It Worked

Once again I conducted a randomized control trial. I collected 38 student volunteers from middle school, but this time they were randomly assigned into either the wallpaper group or the sticker group (the same sticker used in the previous project). I wanted to see which intervention would have the strongest impact. The Flow Chart below illustrates the experiment.

The Result

Using Wilcoxon-Signed Rank tests, it was established that they were both statistically significant experiments. The p-value in the wallpaper group was 0.00016, and 0.00014 in the sticker group. The result was significant at p < .05.

On average, students in the sticker group decreased by 65 minutes per person per day, similar to the findings from last year, and the students in the wallpaper group decreased by 118 minutes per day, which is incredible! The two interventions were not statistically significant from each other, although there was a trend toward significance.

Comparing the daily average screen times of the middle school volunteers before and after the wallpaper interventions were given out
Comparing the daily average screen times of the middle school volunteers before and after the sticker interventions were given out
Comparing the daily average decrease in cell phone usage between the sticker and wallpaper group

Next Steps

This shows that a simple intervention can have radical effects on the phone habits of middle schoolers. Since screen time is associated with many bad outcomes, having something simple like this is a very important finding.

Future studies could look at running this on a bigger sample of students and for a longer period of time. My goal is to be able to distribute the phone wallpaper across schools in Ottawa, which I hope will improve the mental health of hundreds of teenagers.

If you want to see more of my work, connect with me on LinkedIn, Twitter, or subscribe to my monthly newsletter!

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Naila Moloo

Naila Moloo

15 y/o with the goal of playing a role in ending our global consumption of fossil fuels