Mapping the human screenome

Stanford experts say your screenome is more important than your screen-time.


Think back to how you used your phone at breakfast this morning. Did you read the “paper”? Check Instagram? Reply to messages? Send links? Issue a Zoom invitation? Post on Facebook? 

Let’s say you spent an hour doing all of that, or something similar. Let’s say your partner spent his morning hour watching re-runs of WorldWide Wrestling.

You’ve both logged 60 minutes of screen-time. But your screenome? It couldn’t be more different.

The screen-time explosion

A decade ago, the concept of “screen-time” was largely unknown and rarely discussed. These days, there’s hardly a parent alive who doesn’t worry about it.

Not that our kids are the only ones spending more and more of their waking hours online. Far from it.

One recent study, for example, showed Millennials will spend a full decade of their lives stuck to their phones. Gen X and even Boomers aren’t far behind, at an average 3 hours and 2.5 hours a day respectively.

shutterstock_794117806Millennials will spend a decade of their lives on their phones.  

Those are pretty scary numbers. Yet experts are now telling us they might be less meaningful than we once thought. The impact screens have on our lives depends, they say, on a much more complicated calculus than simply adding up the hours we spend with our devices.

Enter the screenome, a groundbreaking concept currently under development by researchers at Stanford University’s Screenomics Lab. 

What IS a screenome?

A play on the word “genome” - the unique set of genetic material every organism contains - a screenome has been defined as “the record of individual experiences represented as a sequence of screens that people view and interact with over time.”

In plain English, your screenome is like a roadmap of your online life - every device, every tab, every digital stop you make along the way.


For the Screenomics Lab's first major project, a  team of experts in communications, media, human development, family studies, genetics, medicine, information science and technology collaborated to sequence the screenomes of 400 subjects.

Utilising software that takes screenshots every five seconds, they were able to reconstruct subjects’ device use during every minute of the day. Among their findings: that we switch screens, on average, every 20 seconds. Yikes!

So what do researchers expect to learn from all this, you ask?

Well, their working hypothesis is that certain device-use patterns may reveal particular health and wellbeing conditions - depression, for example, or eating disorders.

The way we use our screens, in other words, could in theory prove an early-warning signal for interventions.

Notes screenome researcher Nilam Ram, “In the future, it might be possible for various apps to ‘interact’ with an individual’s screenome and to deliver interventions that alter how people think, learn, feel and behave.

"Some of the most exciting potential for precision interventions are in health. Knowledge of the screenome can help us deliver the right intervention to the right person at the right time and in the right context. The Human Screenome Project will increase our ability to, in real time, help people optimize their lives and reach their goals.”

The problem is that we each have our own, highly individualised patterns of use. Some people check social media more often when they’re feeling flat - the dreaded “doomscroll,” which has been shown to fuel further negative thoughts. But for others it could be the distraction of a Netflix binge or a trip down a YouTube rabbit hole.

That makes predictions about our mental or physical health based on our screenome pretty precarious - at least at this stage of the research. But it’s early days.

In time, scientists predict, a detailed understanding of how we actually navigate the online world - as opposed to how many hours we spend on our devices - will emerge as the key to digital wellbeing in the next generation.


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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Pornography, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, Cyber Safety, mental health

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