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How much screen time is too much?

Reviewed by Brooks Baer

A woman looking at a smartphone.

Like many other working people, I stare at a computer screen for most of the day. And when it’s time to take a break from my job, I usually end up looking at my phone.

Does that sound familiar? You and I aren’t alone. The average adult in the US spends more than eight hours every day in front of a screen.1 Kids ages eight to 18 average about six to seven hours of screen time per day.2 Surprisingly, people over age 65 are the most screen-focused group, averaging more than 10 hours per day.3

The negative health effects of excessive screen time

It’s easy to overlook the consequences of staring at screens for too many hours, but here’s what you might experience:

Eye strain

At least 50% of working adults experience eye fatigue, dry eye, irritated eyes, and headaches.4 The blue light emitted from screens is partially to blame, but scientists are still trying to determine whether that can cause long-term damage.

Experts recommend using the “20-20-20 rule” to help reduce eye strain: Turn your eyes away 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.

Headaches

Eye strain and headaches go hand in hand. In some cases, those headaches can 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 a lengthy document, try printing it out on paper instead of using your laptop or phone.

Neck and back pain

You might be sitting, slouching, looking down, and not moving when you’re absorbed by what’s on a screen. Over time, this can lead to joint pain and muscle tension.

Becoming more aware of your posture is a good first step. Bring your phone up in front of your face so you’re not always 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. 

Low energy and less physical activity

Staring at screens is both mentally and physically draining. The more you do it, the more sedentary you might become, which puts you at greater risk for a major health issue like cardiovascular disease, obesity, or diabetes.

Break the cycle by doing whatever it takes to get up and move. The simplest way is by replacing excessive screen time with physical activities you enjoy, such as taking a walk or going for a bike ride.

Sleep problems and insomnia

One 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.5 Using screens before bed has also been shown to reduce REM sleep, which leaves you feeling tired the next day.

To reduce the chances of sleep problems and insomnia, keep screens out of your bedroom and limit your use before bedtime. Instead of watching TV or scrolling through your phone, do something else that relaxes you. You might try reading or meditation instead.

Learning and comprehension problems

Screen time can affect children’s developing minds. Another study found that two-year-olds who watched more than three hours of television daily were more likely to have language delays.6

Limiting screen time is one solution. As a parent or caregiver, you can also be more choosy about the types of media kids consume. For instance, interactive programming designed for children may help develop their language skills—if they watch in moderation.

How much screen time should children have?

If you’re a parent or caregiver, stay aware of how much time the kids you care for spend in front of screens. This habit can impact their health and overall well-being.

Infants and toddlers under 18 months should have the least amount of screen time, and ideally none at all. Instead, they should spend as much time as possible engaging in interactive play and learning activities with caregivers and other kids.

Young children between two and five should have screen time limited to one hour per day.

Elementary school children ages five to 10 should spend no more than two hours a day looking at screens outside of school.

Middle schoolers or junior high students should be limited to about two hours of screen time outside of school.

High schoolers and college students can enjoy a healthy limit of two hours of screen time outside of school.

How adults can set healthy screen time limits

There’s no one-size-fits-all guideline for adults. Because we all have such different needs and enjoy different things, screen time limits are an individual and personalized choice.

That said, here are some practical tips for setting your own healthy limits:

Disable notifications. They’re terribly distracting, and chances are you won’t miss them when they’re gone.

Establish “screen-free” zones at home. For instance, if removing the TV from your bedroom will help you sleep better and longer at night, you should probably do it.

Try a digital detox. This might involve picking one bad screen habit and quitting cold turkey for a week, a month, or possibly longer.

Embrace activities and hobbies you love. One of the easiest ways to break a bad habit is by replacing it with a healthier one.

Take advantage of tools that help control screen time. If you have a smart TV, consider setting the timer to turn it off automatically at least 30 minutes before bedtime.

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 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 increase your chances of getting them to cooperate.

How to tell when you might need help

Just about everybody struggles with setting limits for screen time. It’s a modern reality that’s not going anywhere.

If you’re struggling to control your screen time and feel like it’s affecting your everyday life, that may be a sign something else is going on. Visit our therapist directory to find someone who can help you figure out a healthy way to cope.

About the author

Elise Burley is a member of the therapist.com editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.

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