Scientists Are Ready to Move Beyond ‘Screen Time’

All screens are not equal. Stanford’s Human Screenome Project promises to map people’s digital behaviors in far more complex ways.

Will Oremus
Published in
4 min readJan 21, 2020


Photo by Tayler Smith. Prop Styling by Caroline Dorn.

SScientists have spent years, and millions of dollars, correlating screen time with all manner of negative effects on young people: depression, anxiety, obesity, academic achievement, ADHD, and even childhood developmental delays. Several have found significant links, but others have turned up inconsistent or even contradictory results, and literature reviews often struggle to extract clear takeaways from them.

The problem, according to the authors of an op-ed published in the journal Nature last week, is that “screen time” is a deeply flawed metric. To improve upon it, they’ve launched what they’re calling the Human Screenome Project. It’s a research program built on a new tracking platform called Screenomics that logs screenshots of participants’ devices every five seconds throughout the day. The platform, which the study authors developed at Stanford University and plan to make available to other researchers, is meant to provide a finer-grained understanding of not just how much people use screens, but when, why, and how they use them. For now, it works on Android smartphones, Macs, and PCs, though the researchers plan to expand it to more operating systems in the future.

While the name is a playful take on the Human Genome Project, the effort is serious and ambitious in its own right. The goal is to place the (often maligned) field of media effects studies on a more rigorous footing for the digital era. And it will require participants to grant researchers access to their lives on an unprecedented scale, which raises questions of privacy and data security. The hope is that it will lead to more specific, reliable recommendations as to which types of screen time are most harmful and which might be less harmful or even beneficial in moderation.

Studies that rely on “screen time” as a metric typically ask participants to self-report the number of hours they spent on electronic devices each day, said Thomas Robinson, professor of pediatrics and medicine at Stanford and a co-author of the paper. But self-reporting is unreliable. Perhaps more…