The majority of Cantabs I spoke to noticed an increase in their screen time during the exam periodIsabella Steinmeyer for Varsity

In exam season my sensitivity to notifications is heightened. Every buzz, ping or Apple piano riff is an opportunity to abandon Quizlet for a dose of blue light-pumped serotonin. There’s nothing like the relief of shutting your laptop and swapping medium-screen for those delicious minutes on small-screen, a brain bath of mindless scrolling. In the unpleasantness that is Easter term, I try to give myself some grace. I justify my Reels addiction as a much-needed break from Kennedy’s foreign policy. But recently I was walking back from the library when I saw a girl waving at me. I squinted, confused, and kept walking. It was only when I was two metres from my housemate that I realised I had a problem. The flitting between small-screen and medium-screen has taken its toll; my eyesight has got worse.

I took to Settings to verify my suspicions. There it was. My laptop screen time average was down 16% (hooray!) to eight hours and six minutes (ah). I can’t blame revision entirely. The Seeley is open for ten hours per day and I’m there for half of them at most, but after a long day’s work I’m not good for much else but Netflix – the New York Times Connections at a push. To discover if I’m alone in my addiction, I spoke to Cambridge students about their Easter term screen habits (via social media, of course).

“The flitting between small-screen and medium-screen has taken its toll; my eyesight has got worse”

The general consensus was comforting; my average of eight hours was, well, average. The majority of Cantabs I spoke to noticed an increase in their screen time during the exam period for a number of reasons. For one, online exams, a COVID pandemic necessity, seem here to stay for many subjects. One student recalled spending “six hours staring at a screen” for an online exam, meaning she spent as many consecutive hours on her laptop as the average UK school day. Directors of Studies and faculty advice may say you should feel free to get up and take a break mid-exam, but the likelihood of students pausing between essays to stretch their legs or “make a cup of tea” is small.

Then there are the hours of online revision. One student sent me a screenshot of their 20-hour screen time, commenting, “I hope this is a glitch,” and another agreed that their average was up “by like a hundred per cent” due to work. This is nobody’s fault. Though the charities Fight for Sight and Royal National Institute for Blind People recommend the 20-20-20 rule (looking at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds for every 20 minutes you look at a screen) this method is incompatible with maximum Anki deck progress.

Spending long periods on devices doesn’t translate to productivity. One Cantab told me that she got “an awful migraine at the end of exams that’s only really fading one week later”. She’s never had one before and puts it down to “screens”. Screen-induced headaches are so common that many students felt it was just a part of the Easter term experience, but I doubt anyone learns best when battling thumping temples and arid eyes.

“One Cantab told me they struggle ‘to be intentional’ with their breaks as they feel ‘just a bit exhausted’ after hours of revision”

Students aren’t just using their devices for work. Another student told me they struggle “to be intentional” with their breaks as they feel “just a bit exhausted” after hours of revision, and many people I interviewed felt “mindless scrolling” was the only way to dull the post-exam brain ache. Some swear by TV, which enables them to limit breaks to one episode, but this isn’t fool-proof; Netflix’s ‘Next Episode’ button is a wily temptress and television is just another screen. Our reliance on screens to unwind is compounded by the fact that Cambridge shuts down socially from the months of March to June. A student told me that it “isn’t just more work” that increases her screen time but the need to find “independent entertainment” with “less social activity”.

There was the odd outlier. A couple of students found that the increased pressures of exam term caused them to put down their devices or that they found ways around the blue light-induced headaches. One told me he had cut his “late night scrolling” by “one to two hours” to “prioritise eight hours of sleep” and added that he prints out his notes and returns to primary texts in book form to minimise screen usage. This vintage approach sounds healthy but is not attainable for many students, for whom printing their library of notes would entail cutting down half the Amazon.


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Overall my research may not have de-puffed my eyes but it did make me feel less guilty about my iPad-kid habits. For the most part, Cantabs’ screen times are up, somewhat inevitable during exam season. But this doesn’t change the fact that countless studies show there is a correlation between increased screen time and deteriorating mental and physical health. Now that I’ve finished my exams (sorry NatScis), I’m making a conscious effort to limit my phone usage. I’m going retro: from screen-less breakfasts to waiting for my friends to arrive at cafes scroll-free (difficulty level: hard), I’m trying to avoid spending my time watching other people’s summers. May Week is within sight – if I squint – and I’m hoping that in swapping revising for Revs-ing, my eyes and brain will get a blue light break. Shutting down my laptop now…