Time limits on Instagram and TikTok do nothing to reduce and even increase usage technology

How long is the screen in front of the screen? TikTok has set a default limit of 60 minutes for everyone under the age of 18. Other networks and operating systems also have similar functionality and leave it up to users to be notified when a self-imposed time limit is reached. However, despite good intentions, these tools can have a negative effect: instead of reducing it, they may increase it.

This is suggested by a preliminary study conducted by US researchers from the Universities of Duke and Delaware on the effectiveness of setting time limits on social networks or video games. In one experiment, participants freely used TikTok and, after a few days, were asked to set a daily limit for themselves within the app. The results showed that, on average, users spend 7% more time the day after setting their limit, which was mostly set to 60 minutes.

Researchers compare this paradoxical effect with what happens when a person budgets to spend on non-essential things, such as clothing or entertainment. When you decide to spend a hundred euros a month on clothes, there is a tendency to spend it all and even a little more. This happens because it is intuitively understood that such a budget is allocated to this procedure, so it does not generate a sense of guilt when using it. The study states that overcoming it “would cost less psychologically”. In the same way, setting many minutes or hours for TikTok or Instagram influences the user to think “I have this time for this activity” and, therefore, they will be more willing to devote it.

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Limit or reduce

In addition, the investigation shows that having more information about a particular habit is not enough to modify it. Also, simply recording physical activities or calories is not effective for weight loss; Monitoring the time you spend isn’t enough to change your digital habits.

So there is no point in setting those limits? “It’s a provocative question,” says Jordan Atkin, a professor at Duke University and researcher on the study. As he explains, it’s not that these tools don’t help, but that they aren’t enough on their own. Atkin stresses that motivation to set these limits is an important factor in measuring effectiveness. “If your goal is simply to avoid excessive periodic amounts, limits should help you achieve that,” he told EL PAÍS over the phone. However, if the goal is to reduce the time you spend, this strategy has no chance of being effective unless you set low limits, such as less than 30 minutes a day.

Compared to experiment participants who set 90 minutes per day on TikTok, those who chose about 20 minutes had better control. “Although you will sometimes go over the limit you decided and choose to continue rather than stop, these notifications will be useful throughout the days to discourage you from spending too much time on this activity,” Etkin continues. However, the minimum that a TikTok user can set is 40 minutes. Therefore, it is better to look at the functions of the mobile phone or other applications that allow you to set smaller amounts, such as 5, 10 or 20 minutes, which should restrict the behavior more effectively. But there is another problem. If a person gets used to such notifications and starts ignoring them, they will completely lose their effectiveness.

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Health psychologist José Tamayo Hernández believes that although there is an increase in collective awareness of the negative effects of spending too much screen time, cognition does not always have an effect on controlling use, so that it does not conflict with other occupations. “It’s very easy to ignore if the person is not motivated enough about the change in behavior and aware of the inconvenience it causes,” he explains.

Mobile phone out of reach

In addition to disabling automatic notifications for apps or deleting those that aren’t completely necessary, Tamayo Hernández suggests other strategies such as not having the mobile phone physically close at hand to carry out activities, especially during those that require maintaining focus, such as study, work or bedtime. When it fails to comply with the self-imposed limit, the expert asserts that it is necessary to bypass the screen functions. “Make mobile phone use coincide with moments or situations of limited duration, such as a trip in transportation, rest between scheduled activities, or waiting time before an appointment is due,” explains the psychiatrist at Activa Wellness Center.

Another approach is to seek to get off “autopilot” and pay careful attention to your actions, your emotions, and the context in which you find yourself from one moment to the next. The goal is for the person to realize what they are doing (“I am entering Instagram for the fifth time in a row without looking for anything in particular”); what should I do (finish homework); How do you feel (tired, sleepy, and wanting to sleep)? “It has automated the behavior of accessing these apps and switching from one app to another, to the point where we hardly realize how much time it takes us at the end of the day while we are visiting them,” says Tamayo Hernández.

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And the big downside of being addicted to your cell phone has to do with the other things you may and may not do. Professor Itkin talks about common smartwatch functions, such as the one that reminds people to get up. “It’s not about stopping doing something, it’s about starting doing something. This could be interesting for time limits: framing, instead of stopping browsing TikTok, start doing something else,” he asserts.

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