How Much Screen Time Is Too Much?

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Like many other people, my job involves staring at a computer screen for most of the workday. And when I take breaks, I usually end up looking at my phone.

But it doesn’t stop there. First thing in the morning, I check my phone. After work, I do it again. In the evening hours, you can usually catch me watching whatever’s good on Netflix.

And apparently, I’m not alone. The average adult in the United States spends more than 8 hours per day in front of a screen. Kids (ages 8-18) average about 6-7 hours of screen time per day. Surprisingly, the group with the highest amount of screen time per day are those over the age of 65, averaging over 10 hours per day in front of screens.

It’s not that I want to spend nearly every waking moment looking at a screen. It’s just that it’s so convenient, it’s extremely alluring, and over time, it’s become a really bad habit.

The worst part is that I hadn’t realized just how bad of a habit it really was before I went on an extended backcountry canoe camping trip in the wilderness. For 10 days, I had no access to any internet or cell service whatsoever.

I took photos using my phone, but that was it. I was forced to become completely aware of my surroundings and everything happening in the present moment thanks to the complete lack of screens.

And you know what? It wasn’t terrible. In fact, it was kind of life-changing. I had not“unplugged” for that long ever in my entire life, and it made me notice some of the ways that modern day technology was really affecting me.

Negative Health Effects of Screen Time

It’s easy to brush some of these things aside, or completely ignore them if they’re part of your day-to-day life. But if your health is important to you, you’ll probably want to make some changes.

Eye Strain

When I’ve been looking at a screen for too long, I often find myself starting to squint. Sometimes, my eyes seem extra sensitive to the light emitted from the screen, and every so often, I develop a really annoying twitch in my right eye.

It turns out that over 50% of working adults experience digital eye strain, which can include eye fatigue, dry eye, irritated eyes, and headaches. The blue light emitted from screens is partially to blame, however scientists are still trying to determine whether it can cause any long-term damage.

Experts recommend using the 20-20-20 rule to help reduce eye strain, which involves averting your eyes from your screen every 20 minutes to look at something that’s about 20 feet away from you, for around 20 seconds. Taking frequent breaks, blinking more often, wearing computer glasses, and adjusting your computer screen brightness (as well as temperature and contrast) can also help reduce eye strain.

Headaches

Headaches and eye strain go hand in hand. In some cases, they can even show up as migraines.

If you’re prone to headaches or migraines, taking frequent breaks and adjusting the lighting around you (as well as on your screen) can help prevent them. If you need to read something like a lengthy document, try printing it out to read on paper instead.

Neck & Back Pain

Most of us are sitting down, slouching over, looking down, and not moving very often when we’re absorbed by whatever we’re looking at on a screen. It’s no wonder we end up with neck and back pain!

Our bodies weren’t meant to be hunched over and immobilized for long periods, so becoming more aware of your posture is a good first step. Bring your phone up in front of your face so you’re not looking down, adjust your computer screen so it’s positioned at eye level, and make sure you get up and move every so often to avoid straining your neck and back muscles. 

Reduced Energy & Physical Activity

It’s no secret that staring at screens makes us feel sluggish. It’s both mentally and physically draining. And the more sedentary we are, the greater risk we put ourselves at of experiencing major health issues like cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Break the cycle by doing whatever it takes to get up and get moving. The simplest way to do this is by replacing excessive screen time habits with physical activities that you actually enjoy.

Sleep Problems & Insomnia

I can’t tell you how much my sleep improved each night after spending the whole day being active and barely looking at my phone. If it were any other “normal” day, I’d end it by spending an hour lying awake in bed just trying to fall asleep.

A study showed that teens who spent more than three hours looking at screens had a harder time falling asleep than those who engaged in less screen time. Using screens before bed has also been shown to reduce REM sleep, which can leave you feeling tired the next day.

Want to take back control of your sleep? Keep screens out of bedrooms and limit your use before bedtime to help reduce the chances of sleep problems and insomnia.

Learning & Comprehension Problems

Young children are particularly at higher risk. One study found that two-year-olds who watched more than three hours of television each day were more likely to have language delays.

Limiting screen time is one solution. Something else you can do as a parent or caregiver of a child is to be more selective with choosing the types of media they’re consuming. For instance, interactive programming designed specifically for children may help them develop their language skills, if used in moderation.

How Much Screen Time Should Children Get?

If you’re a parent or caregiver of a child, being aware of how much time they spend in front of screens is a must for their health and overall wellbeing. Here’s what you can do:

Infants & Young Children (0-5)

Infants and children under the age of 18 months should have the least amount of screen time out of any age group, in favor of play and learning activities that help support their developing minds and bodies. For children between two and five years of age, limit screen time to one hour per day.

Elementary School Children (5-10)

Elementary school children should spend no more than two hours a day looking at screens outside of school. It’s best to encourage other activities and make sure that homework is completed before they indulge in screen time after school hours.

Middle Schoolers (10-15)

Children in middle school or junior high should be limited to about two hours of screen time outside of school. Parents can also start giving children at this age more control over their own screen time. You can do your part by helping them understand when they’ve reached their limit and the negative effects of excessive screen time.

High Schoolers & College Students (15+)

Most experts don’t set specific guidelines for teens and young adults, but they caution against too much screen time. Two hours of screen time outside of school is a healthy limit. It’s worth talking to teens and young adults about the effects of too much screen time to encourage them to develop healthier habits on their own.

How Adults Can Set Healthy Screen Time Limits

If you’re like me, and you have to use screens to make a living, it can be more of a challenge to set healthy limits. There’s no one-size-fits-all hourly screen time limit for adults. Because we all live such different lifestyles, have different needs, and enjoy different things, screen time limits really need to be personalized.

For myself, I learned that it’s really important for me to get away from screens as often as possible when I’m not working to help balance things out. But for someone with a physically demanding job like a landscaper, for example, a couple hours of Netflix in the evening might not be so bad if it really helps them relax and unwind.

Here are some practical tips you can use to set your own limits for screen time:

    • Disable notifications. They’re terribly distracting, and chances are you won’t miss them once they’re gone.
    • Establish “screen free” zones at home. If removing the TV from your bedroom will help you sleep better at night, then you should probably do it. You can also set rules for keeping phones out of the bedroom, away from the dinner table, and in a separate space when you go to the bathroom if you have a “toilet scrolling” habit.
    • Try a digital detox. This might involve picking one bad screen habit and going off it cold turkey for a period of time. For example, you could deactivate your Instagram account for a period of 30 days if you find yourself looking at it for several hours every day.
    • Embrace activities and hobbies you love. Honestly, one of the easiest ways to break a bad habit is by replacing it with something else that’s healthier.
    • Take advantage of features and apps that help control screen time. If you have a smart TV, consider setting the timer to automatically turn it off at least 30 minutes before bedtime. You can also download desktop and mobile apps that allow you to track your usage, set controls, and give you insights into your habits.
    • Focus on progress over perfection. It’s more important to be consistent than it is to be perfect. Instead of drastically reducing your screen time right from the start, try reducing it gradually over time.
    • Set a good example for your kids. Children learn how to behave by watching their parents’ behaviors. If you want them to limit their screen time, be sure to do it alongside them to maximize your chances of getting them to cooperate.

How to Know When You Might Need Help

Almost everybody struggles with setting limits for their screen time these days. It’s a modern day reality that’s not going away anytime soon.

At the end of my 10-day trip, I felt completely cleansed and “reset” from technology. I didn’t feel like I missed anything, because I was out living my life and truly enjoying it.

Of course, since getting back, I’ve had to rejoin the modern world. And sure, I’ve fallen back into some not-so-healthy screen time habits along the way. I may not be perfect, but at least I’m far more aware of how much more enjoyable life can be when I take time to do something else other than look at a screen. And that’s enough to motivate me to take control of my screen time.

For others, it’s not so easy. If you find yourself struggling to take control, or you suspect that you’re turning toward the internet, television, video games, or other screen time activities in order to avoid or cope with something—and it’s affecting your everyday life—then this could be a sign that something else is going on. Visit our directory of therapists today to find someone who can help you find a healthier balance with your screen time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elise Burley

Elise Burley is part of the therapist.com editorial team and has over a decade of professional writing and editing experience on a variety health topics. Over the years, she has written for several health-related ecommerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not writing, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.

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