These days, many of us are in front of a screen around the clock. We scroll our phones for fun, use our computers for work, and unwind each night in front of the television. A 2018 Nielsen study showed adults spend as much as 11 hours a day in front of a screen.
So what are the health effects of so much time spent with our devices? And how can we cut back from the technology that is so intertwined with our daily lives?
Screen addiction is a real phenomenon, and too much use can lead to health risks. From physical eye strain and increased risk for weight gain to mental health consequences and sleep disturbances, time spent with our devices has tangible effects on our well-being.
Changing your habits starts with recognizing the signs of screen addiction. We’ll explore how instant gratification, the scrolling effect, and the fear of missing out affects our daily lives. If you’re concerned about your usage, these tips could help you cut back starting today.
This guide also will explore some consequences of increased screen time for children and adolescents.
Health Risks of Too Much Screen Time
Chances are you’re questioning whether you spend too much time in front of a screen because you’ve noticed a particular side effect.
Maybe your wrist hurts from holding your phone, or you find it difficult to sleep after watching television at night. Maybe your eyes hurt from staring at your computer screen, or you find yourself compulsively checking your cell phone after feeling a phantom vibration.
Whatever the reason, it should be clear that too much screen time poses certain health risks — both physical and mental. Too much screen time can contribute to:
- Problems sleeping.
- Eye strain.
- Wrist pain.
- Weight gain.
- Altered brain functioning.
- Increased blood pressure.
But adults aren’t the only demographic at risk. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology (AACAP), too much screen time in children can lead to a myriad of problems. These include:
- Sleep problems.
- Lower grades in school.
- Weight problems.
- Mood problems.
- Poor self-image and body image issues.
- Fear of missing out.
Also, the AACAP warns that screen time can often take the place of other worthwhile activities. These include reading books, engaging in outdoor physical activity, and spending time with family and friends.
Have you ever struggled to recall the name of an actor or an interesting fact from a book you read and found yourself reaching for your phone for the answer? If so, you could be at risk for what some scientists call “lazy thinking.”
A 2015 study showed that intuitive thinkers were more likely to rely on their phones for information. Meanwhile, analytical thinkers would happily puzzle over a question before reaching for their phones.
The researchers concluded that there was an association between higher smartphone use and lowered intelligence. They also suggested that using phones to problem-solve might have adverse consequences for aging.
Similarly, a 2016 study examined cognitive function in middle-aged adults as it related to their TV viewing habits. The study showed that those who watched more TV and participated in less physical activity as young adults had a slower processing speed later in life. The study tracked the habits of its participants for 25 years.
It’s important to note that neither study proved that cell phone or TV use caused these differences in brain function.
A groundbreaking study by The National Institutes of Health is looking at how screen time affects children’s brains.
The study is in its infancy, but early results suggested that kids who engaged in more than two hours of daily screen time showed premature thinning of the cerebral cortex — the area of the brain responsible for processing information and controlling functions like memory, thought, and voluntary movement.
The study has not shown yet that screen time is the absolute cause of the cortex thinning. The final results of the study won’t be available for many years.
If you’re experiencing too much screen time, you might notice eye strain.Potential effects of screen time include:
- Eye fatigue. Your eyes can get tired from intense use. This can cause double vision, headaches, and concentration difficulties.
- Dry and irritated eyes. You tend to blink less when staring at a screen, and your eyes can become dry and irritated. You should avoid dry eye because it can affect the health of your eyes and cause blurry vision.
- Loss of focus flexibility. Typically, loss of focus flexibility happens as we age. But excessive screen time can affect our ability to adjust our eyes to see at all distances quickly.
- Nearsightedness. Screen time can keep our kids indoors, which can have a long-term impact on eye health. Natural daylight is important to developing children’s eyes. Studies have shown children who spend more time indoors are more likely to develop nearsightedness.
- Retinal damage. Digital devices release blue light, which can reach the inner lining of the back of your eye (retina). Studies show that blue light can damage light-sensitive cells in the retina. This can lead to early age-related macular degeneration, which can lead to loss of eyesight. According to the American Optometric Association, children are more likely than adults to experience damage when exposed to this high-energy light.
If you can’t stop using screens when you notice these symptoms, try taking a break instead. You can give your eyes a rest by adjusting the brightness on your device, keeping your eyes moist, and using blue light filters.
A 2015 study showed that adults who were asked to perform tasks without their cell phones in proximity experienced lower functioning and symptoms of withdrawal. The study had adults perform puzzles as their cell phones rang in the background. They could not answer their phones while completing the tasks. The results showed that participants’ “heart rate and blood pressure increased, self-reported feelings of anxiety and unpleasantness increased, and self-reported extended self and cognition decreased.”
That study also referenced a statistic that adults ages 18 to 24 reportedly checked their cell phones about 60 times throughout the day and sent about 3,200 texts a month.
The study focused on the idea that cell phones have become an extension of the self because of their prevalence in today’s society. Users feel anxious when they don’t have access to their phones or when they go extended periods without checking them. And that’s a problem when it comes to our mental health.
A 2017 study also demonstrated an association between computer and TV usage and depression in adults. The study concluded that people who spent more than six hours in front of a computer or TV each day outside of daily work or school responsibilities were more likely to develop depressive symptoms.
As with all aspects of screen time, the impacts are far greater on younger populations. A 2018 report showed that “children and adolescents who spent more time using screen media were lower in psychological well-being than low users.”
Those considered “high users” of screens displayed the following behaviors:
- Poor emotional regulation.
- Argumentative tendencies.
- Inability to finish tasks.
- Lower curiosity.
- More difficulty making friends.
The same study showed that adolescents who were high users of screens were twice as likely to receive a diagnosis of depression or anxiety.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common problem among working adults who spend most of their days in front of a computer. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s normal. Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include pain or numbness in the hands, fingers, and wrists. It can make daily tasks such as typing or even holding a coffee cup more difficult.
If you’re using your cell phone a lot, you might also experience frequent neck pain. A 2019 study of university students showed the more each student used their phone, the greater their pain became.
Aside from the physical strain these devices put on our bodies, there is also a danger in using these devices when we should be focusing on other tasks. The biggest risk is texting while driving. The habit is so dangerous that it’s illegal in most states. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that more than 3,000 people died in 2019 as a result of distracted driving. This includes incidents involving texting while driving.
Many studies on children also show that those who engaged in high levels of daily screen time often did so at the expense of other, more physical activities. As a result, the AACAP points out high screen time can cause a potential for weight problems. If your child is spending too much time in front of a screen and they are gaining weight, there could be a link.
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The Psychology Behind Screen Addiction
Like gambling and substance use disorders, cell phone use fits many of the factors required to consider a habit addictive, according to a 2016 study.
A study by JAMA Pediatrics showed screen time among teens doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Examining the science behind why we have that pull to use our phones and computers is crucial. Many studies, examining behavior in both adults and children, point to the scrolling effect and the dopamine cycle we experience each time we reach for our phone as reasons why these habits are so hard to break.
The same NIH study that showed screen time affects children’s brains also showed that part of the draw to smartphones is the feeling of instant gratification we get from scrolling. Our brains get a dopamine rush when we engage with our phones, which creates a reward loop. The more we engage with these devices and platforms, the more we experience that feeling.
And it only takes a moment to feel those happy chemicals at work. That’s why it’s so easy to reach for your phone between tasks or while taking a break at work.
Developers design our phones and the apps we download to hold our interest and keep us using them. You’ve likely noticed yourself scrolling on certain social media apps without any end in sight. That’s because you can theoretically scroll on these apps forever and the content will never run out.
The scrolling effect also means we can’t always stop ourselves from encountering stressful or negative content. The solution requires that we actively decide when to set the phone down. For many individuals, this means breaking an addictive cycle.
Some studies showed that when adults reached for their phones to kill time between tasks, they had more difficulty concentrating when they returned to work. The study concluded that taking breaks in front of a cell phone somehow depleted brain power compared to taking breaks and turning to pen and paper for a distraction. Even if you find it easy to set your phone down and get back to work, your performance could be suffering.
FOMO and highlight reels
Teens especially experience what’s known as the fear of missing out, or FOMO. Social media apps often act as a highlight reel of our lives. It’s easy to become consumed by the idea that everyone is having fun without you or that they lead more exciting or fulfilling lives. While that’s not the case, the perception can be damaging if left unchecked.
A 2020 study showed that the fear of missing out led many teens to check their social media platforms to see what others were doing. The study showed that repetitive behavior met some criteria for a type of addiction.
Sleep Disturbances and Screen Time: How Your Devices Affect Your Sleep
Too much screen time can cause problems with both the amount and quality of the sleep you get each night. Some of the impacts are a result of using the phone late at night instead of sleeping. But there are some signs that stress from high cell phone usage results in poor sleep. Notifications can also disrupt sleep if they’re loud or bright enough to rouse you.
A 2011 poll by the National Sleep Foundation showed that about 4 in 10 adults brought their cell phones to bed with them. About 6 in 10 said they frequently used a laptop or computer up to an hour before going to bed for the night.
The foundation discouraged these habits. Studies have shown that the use of these devices can suppress melatonin production. This leads users to feel alert and awake, thus making it more difficult to fall asleep.
To promote better sleep:
- Limit the amount of light exposure to your body late at night, which can affect the sleep cycle. Try dimming the lights in your home a few hours before bed.
- Dim the brightness on your electronic devices or use nighttime mode if your device has it.
- If possible, make your bedroom a screen-free zone.
- When you must use devices, try wearing blue light glasses. They can reduce the amount of blue light exposure to your eyes while using your phone or computer.
Tips on Cutting Back Screen Time
When it comes to children, the AACAP has several tips for controlling the amount of screen time a child engages in. They include:
- Until 18 months of age, limit screen use to video chatting along with an adult (for example, with a parent who is out of town).
- Between 18 and 24 months, limit screen time to watching educational programming with a caregiver.
- For children 2 to 5 years old, limit non-educational screen time to about one hour per weekday and three hours on weekend days.
- For ages 6 and older, encourage healthy habits and limit activities that include screens.
- Turn off all screens during family meals and outings.
- Use parental controls.
- Avoid using screens as pacifiers, babysitters, or to stop tantrums.
- Turn off screens and remove them from bedrooms 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.
As adults, it can be difficult to cut back on your cell phone or computer use when the modern world requires it for daily work. But it is possible to limit the ways in which we turn to these devices for entertainment or to pass the time. And it’s especially important if you’ve experienced any of the negative side effects discussed in this guide.
That means setting ground rules for ourselves and sticking to them. Luckily, there are some easy ways to make changes in our daily habits to get our eyes off those screens. Try some of the steps below to lower your screen time.
Productivity timers and screen time limits
Many smartphones include screen time monitors and notifications that alert you when you’ve surpassed your daily allotment. Setting one up for yourself can be a good reminder to set your phone down.
You can also adjust your notifications for various apps, so you aren’t compelled to pick your phone up each time one goes off. The “Do Not Disturb” feature on some smartphones lets you decide when you want to disable all notifications.
A 2010 study showed that brief breaks from work or studying actually helped participants to maintain focus when they returned to the task at hand. Methods such as the Pomodoro Technique can help keep people on track. The technique involves setting a timer for a 25-minute work period, followed by a five-minute break. The technique suggests doing four rounds of work followed by a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes.
No screen time before 8 a.m. or after 8 p.m.
Limiting smartphone use is especially beneficial at the start and end of your day to avoid interfering with sleep and tasks unrelated to work or school.
Set hours during the day when you can engage with your phone for work-related reasons and non-work-related reasons. Some find keeping their phones in another room while they sleep helps them to avoid morning and nighttime scrolling as well.
Family time: Hang up and hang out
One way to cut back on screen time and improve your relationships is to limit device usage during critical bonding times with family. That might mean putting your phones in another room during dinner and sitting around the kitchen table instead of in front of the TV.
Avoiding your smart devices when in the presence of others can help you focus on the present moment. (It is also a polite thing to do!) Silence your notifications during these times, or flip your phone over to avoid seeing notifications.
Not All Screen Time Is Bad
Screen time can be good, too. Using phones, televisions, and computers can help you connect with loved ones, unwind, and get work done. In fact, there are even benefits to using our phones and playing video games, if done right. But like all things, moderation is key.
Benefits of screen time in moderation
A 2018 study showed that screen time was not all bad if it included calls to loved ones and time spent connecting with others. The study concluded that it might be more beneficial to increase the amount of helpful screen time than it is to decrease total screen time indiscriminately.
Using smartphones in moderation could also be beneficial in children, according to a 2019 study by the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. The study showed that one to two hours of daily use was associated with slightly higher levels of psychosocial functioning compared to lower or higher levels of engagement.
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