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I bet your initial estimate was lower than your actual number, perhaps by a long shot. You’re not a bad guesser, nor are you trying to seem more virtuous than you are. Time just passes differently when we’re online.

That is the conclusion of researchers such as Peter Tse, who have spent years studying our perception of time.

Paradoxically, time can feel slow when we’re deeply absorbed in something, such as a videogame. But our memory tells us it passed quickly, says Dr. Tse, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth College.

On top of that, the things we remember most vividly later on are typically jarring experiences, or new and exciting ones. Our memories of routine activities tend to fade fast.

“The brain judges time by how much information it’s processing. When something is novel, we pay attention to it,” Dr. Tse says. A good example would be the way time stands still in an impending car crash. “We’re processing more information per second, so it seems to last longer.”

The adage of child-rearing—the days are long but the years are short—shows how the lack of novelty plays a role. The early days might have individually felt grueling, but later on you can’t remember every diaper change. When you look back, it seems like your kids grew up in a flash.

Videogames and social media affect us in similar ways. Our Instagram feeds might hold the illusion of novelty, but can you really remember every birthday post you read or cat video you watched? The experience of scrolling, regardless of what we scroll past, is largely the same from day to day.

Ben Rodsky, 11 years old, understands this. When he’s on his iPad, watching TikTok videos and playing games, it doesn’t feel like he’s on long at all, he says. But looking back on his iPad use, he says, “It feels like time goes 10 times faster.”

Sometimes, his mom has him take a 10-minute screen break, to see how long that feels in the real world. He is supposed to meditate. After about a minute, he asks, “Has it been 10 minutes yet?”

Just about any adult can relate. No matter our age, we all get sucked into our devices.

Dr. Tse and colleagues published their first study on the effect novelty can have on our perception of time back in 2004—three years before the iPhone came out. Participants in his study were shown a series of repetitive images flashing on a screen, followed by one new image. While all images appeared for the same duration, participants thought the new image lasted longer.

Other time-perception experiments have since been conducted around videogame and social-media use and have found that people lose track of time when playing videogames and scrolling Facebook. Some studies have also shown that people vastly underestimate the amount of time they spend on screens. A well-cited 2015 study, published in the peer-reviewed scientific and medical journal PLOS One, found that people underestimate their actual daily smartphone use by about 20%. Some researchers say that figure has likely increased in recent years.

Brain-Jacked

So what’s the big deal?

As we spend more time on virtual pursuits, it’s harder to manage time in general, Dr. Tse says. This can cause us to miss out on building in-person relationships and on activities such as exercising and spending time outdoors.

That little high you get when you see new likes on your Instagram post? That’s the feel-good chemical dopamine being released in your brain. But when the brain is repeatedly flooded with dopamine, it regulates itself, reducing the amount that gets released. Individual likes are less rewarding so you need more of them to feel good. Instead of 30 minutes, you’re on for an hour.

Philip Gable, an associate professor in the University of Delaware’s department of psychological and brain sciences, has done research showing that when people view photos of potential rewards such as a dessert, they perceive them retrospectively as having been shown for a shorter amount of time than photos of flowers.

“When you’re highly motivated, that makes time fly,” Dr. Gable says, citing videogames and social media. “The problem is, these things are not as meaningful as our brains are tricked into thinking they are.” He adds, “You might be interacting with other people, but it’s ephemeral.”

Andrew Fishman, a licensed clinical social worker in Park Ridge, Ill., uses a time-estimation exercise when treating kids with problems regulating their gaming. He says the children play three to five times longer, on average, than they estimate.

Once kids see how much time they’re devoting to gaming versus to other activities they enjoy, he helps them develop a plan for more nonscreen activities. He says adults should consider doing the same exercise.

What You Can Do

Once you’ve tracked all the time you spend online, decide on new screen-time limits and come up with activities to replace that wasted device time. Here’s how:

Take baby steps. Ben Rodsky, the fifth grader, says it has helped to gradually dial back the amount of time he spends on his iPad. He has, in the past, stepped down from three hours at a time on his iPad to 45 minutes.

Partner up. Dr. Tse suggests enlisting a partner with whom to do screen-free activities, the same way you’d use a workout buddy to keep you honest at the gym. If one of you pulls out your phone at dinner or during a hike, you can remind the other to put it away.

Make it a family thing. If your family spends too much time on screens, model the behavior you want, Mr. Fishman says. Track your own digital usage and set limits for yourself, then share all that with your kids.

Set a timer. Dr. Gable recommends setting a 30-minute timer while doing things that typically cause you to lose track of time. You’ll become more aware of how long that feels.

 



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By Ajay Kumar Verma

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