Screensavers: Intervention Synthesis

Baseline study insights

  1. No natural, healthy breaks during COVID:
    People want, and need, breaks from work. While these breaks used to be automatically built into their daily lives (walking to class, chatting with friends you bump into at Tresidder, etc.), now there is the question of “what the heck do I do during my 20 minute break?” For many, the answer right now is to open their phones and scroll.
  2. Getting stuck in scrolling: People get stuck scrolling on social media for much longer than they intend to because each additional piece of media often takes only seconds to absorb. When people ask themselves “do I have 15 more seconds to scroll?” the answer is almost always yes. Often, this results in them spending 45 minutes that they didn’t have on scrolling.
  3. Under-stimulating environment (online and offline): Zoom class, and even meetings, are under-stimulating. It’s hard to focus and feel energetic working online. Hence, people look at their phones for that extra jolt of stimulation. More broadly, shelter-in-place leads to off-line under stimulation as well, so people turn to screens for some semblance of excitement, entertainment, and engagement.

System diagram

Our intervention:

We asked our study participants to set a 10-minute timer whenever they began to scroll through a social media app (opening an app to find something in particular or for a clearly defined productivity task would not qualify as “scrolling”). They were asked to either stop scrolling by the end of the 10-minute period, or to call a friend or family member and either chat or scroll with them.

Immediately, some of our original participants had qualms about the “calling a friend” aspect of the intervention. They felt uncomfortable about the idea of potentially interrupting their friends’ work by making unscheduled calls. However, we also received positive feedback regarding the social nature of the intervention.

Results of the intervention study:

What worked:

People often stopped before the timer went off

  • For some people just setting the timer was helpful
  • For some, being overly conscious of the timer resulted in them stopping the scrolling before the 10 min was up
  • Some people stopped when the timer went off but just went to do other things instead of calling a friend
  • Some people remembered to set the timer after they had already started scrolling, and when they remembered they were supposed to set a timer they stopped scrolling altogether

A few surprising deterrents to scrolling past 10 min

  • inconvenience of setting timer
  • fear of calling friend (didn’t want to disturb their work)

People were sometimes uncomfortable calling a friend, but once they did they seemed really happy to have done so.

One person texted a friend instead of calling, with positive results

Multiple reports of the intervention being helpful for limiting their scrolling

In one instance calling a friend “felt much better mentally” than scrolling

What didn’t work:

Sometime friends don’t pick up the call

Sometimes calling a friend is inconvenient due to the time of day

Some people forgot to set the timer

Many people have an avoidance of calling other people

  • Multiple people reported never having the timer go off, which is very possible but also possibly indicates that they just avoided this part of the study and/or genuinely forgot about the timer in all of the cases in which they were scrolling for 10 or more minutes


  • Session limits > Daily limits : In our baseline study we found that, in general, screen-time limits don’t work. People are super down to just press “ignore”. Our hypothesis is that this is because committing to staying off of social media, reddit, etc. for the rest of the day is too much. On the other hand, in our intervention study we found that people were often willing to limit their scrolling time to 10 minutes at a time.
  • Setting a timer can be helpful: Just being mindful of time spent scrolling and intentionally setting a limit is helpful
  • People are forgetful: Especially toward the beginning of the study, people admitted to forgetting about the timer, even multiple times in one day, and one even noted that they forgot what they were doing when they were on social media — in a mindless pastime, it’s tough to remember things like this
  • Calling a friend may be too inconvenient: friends may not be available or the time of day may not be conducive to calling someone
  • Calling/texting a friend can work to limit unproductive screen time: when it actually happens, calling/texting a friend can help the user feel better mentally and feel like their time was better-used.