Many of the women who come to see me are mothers who tell me it’s a constant struggle to balance their own health and wellness needs with those of their children. A common concern I hear when it comes to their kids is the overabundance of screens present in their lives, and what that might mean for their children’s mental and physical health.
These same women are often surprised when I ask about their own screen use. They’ve spent considerable time thinking about how their children are impacted by being constantly connected, but fail to recognize that the same problems can crop up in their own lives if they aren’t mindful of how much screen time they’re logging.
Screens are an integral part of many women’s work life, but so often they don’t disconnect even after they’ve left the office. Not only are they answering work email from home, but so many leisure activities, like social media, texts from family and friends, and relaxing in front of Netflix are tied to a smartphone, tablet, television or computer screen.
Let’s take a look at how pervasive screen time is in our culture and some of the ways excessive use can negatively impact health. Then I’ll give you some tips on reducing screen time to help you enjoy good health and live life to its fullest!
How Much Time Do American Adults Spend Interacting with Screens?
The 16th annual Digital Future Report from the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenburg is a comprehensive look at how digital technology is changing modern life. More than 2,000 US households are surveyed annually (ideally the same households year after year, though when one drops out it is replaced by a new household) about their internet use.
According to the 2018 report, the average amount of time spent online is 22.5 hours per week – up from 9.4 hours per week in 2000. Interestingly, the average peaked at 23.6 hours per week in 2016, suggesting that perhaps, finally, people are beginning to understand the advantages of unplugging every now and then.
Still, 22 hours of use per week works out to more than 3 hours every single day; and that’s just the internet!. When you consider how much time adults spend looking at computers for work, sending messages, watching videos and television, or playing games, I think it’s fair to say that many adults spend a majority of the time they aren’t sleeping interacting with a screen of one kind or another.
In fact, research from Nielsen in late 2018 found that American adults spend more than 11 hours per day using some kind of media – an increase of an hour and a half per day in the last four years!
While the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommendations on screen time limits for children, it’s difficult to come up with similar suggestions for adults – in part due to the fact that so many use screens all day at work. But there are some really great reasons to reduce your recreational screen time, even if you have no control over what happens at work. Let’s take a look at the potential health costs of spending so much time on screens.
How Can Screen Time Impact Physical and Mental Health?
There’s a wide body of research on the impact of screen time on children’s brains and overall health. While there’s less research on adult screen use and health, there’s more happening all the time. And it stands to reason that many of the results found in younger people can transfer to those of any age. Here are some of the most common impacts of spending too much time on screens.
So many women come to me for help with weight loss, and all too often they fail to recognize how spending so much time on devices can have a direct impact on their weight. A sedentary lifestyle is a significant contributing factor to obesity, and most people aren’t checking social media or watching videos as they work out; instead, they’re spending more and more time on couches or sitting at a desk.
Studies have shown an association between screen-based sedentary behavior and the likelihood of being overweight in children. A 2012 review of studies detailed the many ways that television watching may contribute to obesity, including less time spent being active, exposure to ads for unhealthy food, and the propensity towards “mindless eating” while watching TV.
Extended periods of time looking at a screen can cause what’s known as computer vision syndrome (CVS). Much like carpal tunnel syndrome can occur due to repetitive motion, CVS is a result of your eyes continually repeating the same movements. With prolonged screen use, you may notice symptoms like blurred or double vision; dry, red eyes; headaches; and irritation in your eyes.
Chronic Pain in Your Neck, Shoulders or Back
Poor posture is common when using screens for prolonged periods, which can lead to constant pain in the shoulders, neck and back. Smartphones and tablets, in particular, can often create poor posture since you’re typically looking down when using them. Poor ergonomic setups for televisions or computers can also create problems.
Depression and Anxiety
Research on the impact of social media on young people’s health is prevalent. In the UK, this issue has prompted such concern that the government is considering placing new rules on social media companies, and almost 400 schools are participating in a trial that introduces mindfulness exercises to reduce stress.
A 2017 study using secondary data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey found that tv watching and computer use can predict depression level among adults. Moderate and severe depression levels were associated with TV and computer usage of more than six hours per day.
Cardiovascular Disease and Metabolic Syndrome
One study in 2011 found that spending four hours per day sitting in front of a computer or television increased risk of major heart problems by 125 percent, and raised the risk of death from any cause by 48 percent. And that same study found that those results didn’t change even when people exercised every day.
While the sedentary nature of the viewing, rather than the actual screen use, may be to blame, these results are startling enough to give me pause. After all, most of the people I know who spend all day on a computer aren’t walking in place while they work.
Another study found that screen time was associated with increased risk of metabolic syndrome (a cluster of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes risk factors that can lead to a predisposition for chronic diseases and premature death) in adolescents, independent of physical activity. And if it’s true for adolescents, there’s no reason to believe it’s any different for adults!
With all of the evidence that suggests that movement is key to maintaining good health, all of those hours at a desk or on the couch are likely to have a negative impact on your overall health.
For children and young adults, excessive screen-time can damage frontal lobe development, which is crucial to developing necessary skills that can contribute to success in academics, careers, and social relationships.
Although adult brains aren’t in the same rapid development phase as younger brains, new information on neuroplasticity suggests that adult brains aren’t as static as they were once believed to be. And that means a barrage of distractions – including those from ever present screens – can impact the adult brain in significant ways.
Cognitive imaging studies have found that too much interaction with screens can lead to less efficient processing of information. In fact, a recent study showed that just having a smartphone in sight can reduce your ability to focus on a task. This study found that both available working memory capacity and functional fluid intelligence were compromised among subjects who could see their phones – even though the phones were turned off, not producing any notification sounds or on-screen messages.
Finally, with respect to brain changes, studies have found that playing video games and using social media can activate the same brain regions as those linked to cravings for other addictions, such as gambling and drugs. And addiction to screens can impact life in many of the same ways as other addictions, including prompting poor health and damaging relationships.
Poor Sleep Quality
I constantly emphasize the importance of getting enough high quality sleep. That’s because lack of sleep can bring so many negative health consequences! Research has shown that screen use can have an impact on the amount of quality sleep people are getting. The blue light from digital devices may be to blame, suppressing melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep.
Recent research has determined just how screen use can disrupt sleep. Researchers found that certain cells in the eye process ambient light and reset the circadian rhythm. When those cells receive ongoing light, a protein called melanopsin regenerates within them. And melanopsin is integral to synchronizing the internal clock.
Tips on Reducing Screen Time for Better Health
Most of the women I see know that cutting down on screen use could benefit their health and their relationships, but they’re often stuck on just how to do that. Screen habits are becoming so firmly part of everyday life that it can be hard to see how easy those habits can be to change.
You don’t have to try all of the tips at once. Cutting out fifteen minutes of screen time is a great start — and when that new healthier habit is set, you can move on to the next. Before you know it, you might just cut your screen time by an hour or more – without even missing it! Here are some quick suggestions for getting started:
No Screens in the Bedroom
Let’s face it – if the phone is on the nightstand, it’s far too easy to grab it for a quick peek right before bed, or first thing when you wake up. If it’s in the other room, you’re far more likely to just settle in for sleep. And televisions in the bedroom invite overuse, too often being used as background noise to fall asleep too – despite evidence that you won’t get restful sleep when using screens too close to bedtime!
Turn the Volume Down and Notifications Off
If you can’t hear or see that a message or email has come in you might have an easier time ignoring your phone in favor of whatever you’re doing. We’ve been trained to respond immediately, but there’s really no need. If there’s a true emergency, word will get to you soon enough. You should be enjoying the moments you are in, not responding like Pavlov’s dog every time the message indicator dings!
Institute a Board Game Night – No Screens Allowed!
Lure your children away from video games with the promise of some connected family time – and then follow through! If you’re checking your screen between each turn, you might miss some amazing moments of connection with your children and partner, so leave the phone in another room, or at the very least, in your pocket!
Make Meals Screen Free Time
Not only does eating in front of a screen increase the likelihood of eating more than you intended, but when everyone is distracted by a phone or television program, you miss a lot of opportunity for meaningful conversation.
Leave Devices Behind
I know this might sound like a radical suggestion, but quite often when you’re heading out for a social event, there’s simply no need to carry your phone with you. If you leave it at home, you won’t have to figure out where to stash it when you want to get up and dance. At the very least, try leaving the phone in the car while you enjoy dinner out, and simply enjoy the company of the people you’re dining with!
Set Timers for Regular Movement Breaks
Even when you’re working, taking regular breaks can have a positive impact on your health. If you get too absorbed in what you are doing – whether it’s work or recreational screen time – you might end up sitting for far too long. Set a timer to remind yourself it’s time to move, then get up and take a brisk walk around the office, or better yet, around the block to get some fresh air and sunshine as well!
Unplug and Enjoy Stronger Relationships and Better Health!
Setting limits for yourself on the number of hours of screen time you get each day can be tough at first, but there are so many good reasons to do so! It’s all too easy to get lost in a digital world and miss the amazing life that’s happening all around you.
I urge you to examine your screen time habits and take even small steps to reduce usage a little each day. I think you’ll be amazed at how much stronger your relationships feel when you’re fully present. And that’s on top of the boost to your mental and physical health!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD