Screen Time: Advice for Protecting Health

Too much screen time isn’t good for anyone. Learn how you can still protect your health in the digital age.

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Last updated: Dec 31st, 2022

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Are all screen times created equal?
How does screen time impact health?
How to scale back
Finding alternatives
Conclusions
Sources
Screen Time Advice

The average person spends between six and seven hours in front of a screen every day. Today’s world is quite literally at our fingertips with nearly every facet of our lives accessible from devices like laptops, smartphones, and tablets. Between work, healthcare, education, intimacy, and entertainment, there’s almost nothing we can’t do from a device that can fit in our pockets. But there is a price to pay for all that scrolling and binge-watching.

How and when does technological convenience begin to negatively impact our bodies and minds? Whether you’re finding out more about the effects of screen time on health or finding the motivation to reduce it, we’ll illuminate the health benefits of taking a step back from devices of all shapes and sizes. Read on to find out more about how to scroll responsibly.

Are all screen times created equal?

How can screen time be at once beneficial and harmful? The answer lies in finding a connection with what you’re doing on your device. While any length of time spent in front of any kind of screen is considered screen time, some activities have more value than others.

Screen time can be split into two categories: passive and creative. Passive screen time includes scrolling through social media, watching television or streaming shows, playing video games, and internet surfing. It is unchecked passive screen time that becomes detrimental to our health, both physical and mental. There is very little mental or social engagement involved in these activities.¹

Creative screen time includes learning a new skill, video chatting with a friend or family member, using educational apps, creating art or music, writing, and other similar activities. Creative screen time allows us to connect and engage with what we’re doing instead of simply observing, using our imagination to create and our brains to solve problems.¹

According to one study, children learned a new word better in socially interactive situations, such as in person or in an interactive video call. This interactivity allows us to engage with the creative parts of our minds. Passive screen time, although convenient, is not a replacement for the social interaction children need to learn and develop.²

How does screen time impact health?

The effect of screen time on physical health is well documented in scientific literature. As access to screens in daily life increases, so does the risk of health problems. According to the CDC, children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours in front of a screen per day. And a 2020 study showed that teens and adults (ages 16 to 64) spend an average of seven hours per day on the internet, as opposed to only three hours watching TV.³

Studies have shown that leisure screen time in both adults and children has significantly increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, running parallel with an increase in sedentary behaviors.⁴ This link highlights the immediate need for understanding and acting upon the health risks of excessive screen time.

Physical health

Children and adults whose screen time is unrestricted or excessive are more likely to suffer from weight gain (which can quickly turn into obesity) due to poor sleep, unhealthy food cravings, and a decrease in physical activity. These health problems can quickly create a chain reaction of issues. Unchecked diet changes might lead to high cholesterol, increased risk of type 2 diabetes, worsened cardiovascular health, and high blood pressure. Depending on how and where you sit and for how long, excessive screen time can also impact your posture, potentially causing back and neck pain.

Furthermore, excessive use of smartphones is associated with myopia (nearsightedness) in children and other eye problems in adults, including:

  • Dryness
  • Tearing
  • Light sensitivity
  • Redness
  • Itchiness
  • Overall fatigue

These problems highlight the importance of taking breaks from these handheld devices to give your eyes a rest.⁴ Eye problems like these stem from blue light, which is emitted by devices such as smartphones and tablets. Excessive exposure to blue light is linked to issues such as retinal degeneration, damage to the blood-retinal barrier function, and oxidative stress in the retina. Additionally, blue light has been found to stimulate melatonin and disrupt our circadian rhythms. It makes sense that excessive screen time at night can directly impact our sleep.⁵

Impacts on mental health and the brain

The mental health impacts of excessive screen time are well known. In children and adults, anxiety and depression were historically understood to be linked to excessive screen time.

In the last few years, watching television has become associated with increased anxiety, with other forms of screen time’s effects on anxiety, such as laptops, computers, phones, and tablets, not being well researched. This could be attributed to the general unease and fear that came with watching the news during the pandemic. However, the sedentary lifestyle that comes with excessive screen time is indeed associated with increased anxiety.⁴ Depression remains a common side effect of increased screen time in both adults and children.⁴

Another alarming effect of screen time, specifically on children and young adults, is the increased risk of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional disorders. Beyond anxiety and depression, excessive screen time has recently been linked to alterations in the gray matter and white volume of the brain, anterograde and retrograde amnesia, impaired social functioning, and impaired concentration.⁶

When chronic screen exposure in children and young adults is left unchecked, these issues lead to an increased risk of early onset dementia. The risk is so severe that studies predict an increase far above the CDC’s projected two to six-fold increase in rates of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia between 2060 and 2100.⁶

How to scale back

Identifying when it’s time

While the health effects of excessive screen time might be frightening and worrisome, it is vital to understand there are things you can do to mediate and improve them before it’s too late. To do this, however, we need to know what it looks like when screen time is causing harm.

In children and young adults, the following symptoms have been linked to excessive screen time:

  • Poor sleep
  • Headaches
  • Eye strain
  • Aggression or violence
  • Declines in academic performance

Too much time passively spent in front of a screen is time lost where a child could be developing fundamental social skills and learning emotional regulation. Additionally, a decline in academic performance is linked to excessive screen exposure due to the effects it has on energy level, cognitive function, and concentration, as well as sucking up time that they could’ve spent studying.⁷

The symptoms of too much passive screen time in adults are similar. Having trouble concentrating at work? Perhaps it's due to your after-midnight scrolling rituals. Excessive screen time in adults is linked to addictive behaviors. If you’re starting to experience withdrawal when you’re away from your phone or are thinking constantly about an app or platform, it’s time to consider stepping back and reevaluating your habits.⁸ Headaches, poor sleep, and eye strain are also common signs of excessive screen exposure in adults.

Setting boundaries

A healthy relationship with screens begins with setting limits. Doctors suggest minimal to no screen time in children up to 24 months, and less than an hour a day for children ages two to five.⁹ The limit for children older than five and young adults is unclear in the research, but most doctors suggest no more than two hours a day. This guideline extends to adults, who are advised to limit their non-work-related screen time to a maximum of two hours per day.⁸ However, different families and individuals have different needs, so remember to do what feels right for you and your family. Your child’s age and even personality might also impact how many limitations you need to set.

Consider setting times and creating spaces in your home where screens are off-limits. For example, try making it a rule to wrap up all screen time at least one hour before bed. This will help decrease attachment to smartphones and improve the quality of sleep, as not being exposed to blue light right before you try to sleep can help to regulate your natural melatonin levels.

Another option might be to save the screens for the weekends or after certain responsibilities are fulfilled. Children who struggle in school due to excessive screen exposure might benefit from waiting to use screens until they complete their homework or finish studying. Making dinner time a screen-free space for both children and adults will also allow for more conversation and connection.¹⁰ Avoid snacking during screen time, as this can lead both children and adults to mindlessly eat more and spend more sedentary time than necessary in front of the screen.⁷

Additionally, you can set a timer when screen time begins for you or your children. This way there is a clear end to the activity, whether it's the Internet, video games, shows, or scrolling through TikTok. Turning off notifications or alerts on smartphones will help to decrease our attachment to them, as they can make us constantly reach for our phones and perhaps spend even longer on them even after we’ve read the notification itself.⁸

Finding alternatives

Limiting screen time might create an empty space that might seem boring or baffling at first. What do you do with all the time on your hands if you can’t binge a show, play video games, or scroll through your favorite social media platform? Here are some of our favorite options.

Bringing back paper

If you make it a habit to use an e-reader, consider swapping out the device for the real thing. Not only will a paper book provide the same content as your e-reader, but it will also be less of a strain on your eyes and brain.

Prone to doodling, coloring, or writing in your spare time? Consider using a high-quality sketchbook or notebook instead of a tablet or smartphone. This is especially beneficial for children who love coloring apps. Using actual crayons and paper provides the sensory development children need, as well as being able to access their creations without the use of smart devices. It also helps them to improve their grip strength, which helps them build adequate fine motor skills.

Physical activity and sports

Having extra time is a perfect opportunity to incorporate more movement into your daily life. Whether you or your child decide to pick up a new sport, try yoga, or even just incorporate a walk around the neighborhood into your schedule, it will have long-term benefits on both your body and mind. The CDC maintains that any kind of exercise done correctly and safely is shown to lower stress levels, benefit the heart and brain, manage weight, reduce the risk of disease, and strengthen the body.

If you live near trails or national parks, do that exercise somewhere more adventurous. A change of scenery might be the thing that keeps you more interested in the physical world than the digital one. Hiking, biking, canoeing, and even camping are all great ways to get in touch with the world around you and incapacitate the urge to scroll and live online.

Hobbies and skills

If it’s been a while since you’ve used your hands for something other than typing and scrolling, consider learning a new hobby or skill. The options are endless. Find something you’re curious about and explore it. Perhaps you’ve always wondered about pottery, or maybe you want to hone your cooking skills or take up yoga or meditation. You’ll have plenty of time to spare now that you’ve limited screen time.

Have a tight budget? Here are some examples of inexpensive hobbies you can try:

  • Watch online documentaries
  • Learn something new
  • Gardening
  • Camping
  • Board games
  • Scrapbook
  • Knit
  • Learn how to cook
  • Drawing
  • Go to free community events
  • Discover new music
  • Investing
  • Volunteering
  • Yoga
  • Writing
  • Origami
  • Play cards
  • Dance
  • Read
  • Sudoku
  • Meditation
  • Photography
  • Teach yourself a language
  • Explore your neighborhood
  • Write a song
  • Visit a local museum

Conclusions

Excessive screen time is detrimental for people of all ages, especially children and young adults. If you or a loved one is exhibiting symptoms of excessive screen time, consider having a conversation about scaling back. The time wasted and increased risk of mental and physical health problems is not worth the fleeting pleasure of scrolling on social media and surfing the web. If symptoms worsen, it’s time to consult a physician and create a plan of action to mitigate the attachment to screens.

Finding a worthy alternative to screen time is key to fixing these problems. Whatever hobby, sport, or skill you choose, just make sure it’s healthy, safe, and offline.

Sources

[1] Kock, E. de. (2016, November 10). Passive vs Creative Screen Time. Tech Age Kids | Technology for Children. Retrieved September 26, 2022, from https://www.techagekids.com/2016/11/passive-vs-creative-screen-time.html

[2] Roseberry, S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013, September 23). Skype Me! Socially Contingent Interactions Help Toddlers Learn Language. Child Development, 85(3), 956–970. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12166

[3] Kemp, S. (2020, October 20). Digital 2020: October Global Statshot. DataReportal. Retrieved September 24, 2022, from https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2020-october-global-statshot?rq=screen+time

[4] Trott, M., Driscoll, R., Iraldo, E., & Pardhan, S. (2022, June). Changes and correlates of screen time in adults and children during the COVID-19 pandemic: A systematic review and meta-analysis. EClinicalMedicine, 48, 101452. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eclinm.2022.101452

[5] Research progress about the effect and prevention of blue light on eyes. (2018, December 18). International Journal of Ophthalmology. https://doi.org/10.18240/ijo.2018.12.20

[6] Manwell, L. A., Tadros, M., Ciccarelli, T. M., & Eikelboom, R. (2022). Digital dementia in the internet generation: excessive screen time during brain development will increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease and related dementias in adulthood. Journal of integrative neuroscience, 21(1), 28. https://doi.org/10.31083/j.jin2101028

[7] Christensen. (2021, May 28). Children and screen time: How much is too much? Mayo Clinic Health System. Retrieved September 21, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/children-and-screen-time

[8] Blog | How Much Screen Time is Too Much for Adults? (n.d.). Reid Health. Retrieved September 24, 2022, from https://www.reidhealth.org/blog/screen-time-for-adults#:%7E:text=Eye%20Strain%20and%20Headaches%20%2D%20Too,strain%20can%20lead%20to%20headaches.

[9] Screen time and children. (2020, February). American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Retrieved September 24, 2022, from https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-And-Watching-TV-054.aspx

[10] Children’s Health Team. (2022, May 23). What Is Too Much Screen Time for Kids? Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-screen-time-can-slow-your-childs-development/