DOI: 10.1521/jscp.2023.42.6.581 ISSN: 0736-7236

A Mindful Alternative to Screen Time: The Short-Term Effects of a Breath-Focused Mindfulness Exercise vs. Unstructured Smartphone Screen Time on Heart Rate Variability and Relaxation

Greg Feldman, Morgan Westine, Audrey Edelman, Morgan Higgs
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Social Psychology

Introduction: Many smartphone users spend hours daily on unstructured screen time leisure activities including social media, games, and videos. Given that many users express a desire to cut back on this habit, it is important to test the relative physiological and emotional benefits of alternative activities, such as mindfulness meditation, as daily practices for relaxation and restoration. Methods: This study tests the immediate effects of unstructured mobile phone screen time vs. practice of a brief mindful breathing meditation exercise on heart rate variability (HRV, a common measure of healthy resting physiological activity) and self-reported states of relaxation. Participants (171 female university students) were randomly assigned to 15 minutes of unstructured screen time (i.e., use phones in a manner consistent with typical daily use) or a mindfulness induction (i.e., a guided meditation recording focused on mindfulness of breathing). Results: Consistent with hypotheses, HRV showed greater increases relative to baseline in the mindfulness condition than the screen time condition (High-frequency HRV, partial η2 = .14, p < .001; Root Mean Square of Successive Differences, partial η2 = .053, p = .002). Subjective relaxation increased in both conditions (partial η2 = .47, p < .001); however, mindfulness produced greater increases in relaxation over time than unstructured screen time (partial η2 = .089, p < .001). Conclusions: Mindfulness was superior to unstructured screen time at increasing physiological and subjective markers of relaxation. Results suggest that repurposing smartphones to facilitate mindfulness practice though guided meditation apps may be a more effective method of promoting physiological and emotional well-being than more ubiquitous unstructured smartphone use.

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