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How Much Screen Time is Too Much?

Our screens have become constant companions. We rely on our devices for keeping up with friends, scrolling social media, browsing the internet, navigation, online shopping and even reading the news. Having access to all of this at our fingertips is convenient and as a result, we’re spending more time looking at screens than before. This begs the question, is all that screen time good for us?

On average, Americans age 16-64 spend over six hours looking at screens every day. Excessive screen time is linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety, poor sleep, higher rates of obesity and a host of other health problems. So how much is too much? The answer is, unsurprisingly, complicated.

The research on how screen time affects children is more robust and conclusive than the research available on adults. In children, excessive screen time is shown to negatively impact the development of communication, fine motor, problem-solving and social skills. Excessive screen time is thought to be less damaging to the already-developed adult brain, but there are no clear conclusions or guidelines for adults because the impact on them hasn’t been studied as extensively.

According to Yalda T. Uhls, an assistant adjunct professor of psychology at UCLA who studies the health effects of screen time, the impact is hard to measure because not all screen time is created equal. Uhls says the type of content you consume matters more than how much time you spend consuming it. For instance, watching an hour-long documentary on your phone doesn’t have the same effect as mindlessly scrolling on Facebook for an hour.

Social media appears to be the most troubling type of screen use for mental health. A 2018 study found that people with depression saw an improvement in their symptoms when they reduced their time spent on social media to 30 minutes a day. However, this relationship is nuanced. A follow-up 2021 study showed that those who spent 30 minutes a day on social media had higher well-being than those who didn’t use social media at all. It appears, study author Melissa Hunt explains, that there’s a “sweet spot” where social media users can feel connected and engaged with their friends and loved ones without seeing detrimental effects.

“It’s not that social media is in and of itself inherently problematic,” Hunt says. “It’s that using too much of it, or using it in the wrong way is problematic.” She explained that following celebrities and influencers you don’t know might exaggerate social media’s negative effects like comparison and being dissatisfied with your life or appearance, which can have negative mental health implications.

The negative consequences of prolonged screen exposure extend beyond the psychological, too. The observed drawbacks of getting too much screen time include:

  • Reduced sleep quality and/or insomnia. Digital devices emit blue light that can keep you awake and interfere with your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy and regulates your circadian rhythm.
  • Eye strain. Focusing on close objects on your screen for too long can damage your eyes.
  • Neck and back pain. Looking down at a phone or computer screen for too long can cause poor posture and muscle strain.
  • Social anxiety and loneliness. In extreme cases, people may come to rely on virtual interactions over face-to-face, which can lead to isolation and anxiety.
  • Screen addiction. Addictive behaviors related to screens include frequently thinking about your device, craving using it, needing to know where it is at all times and using it to cope or modify your mood.

Striking a Healthy Balance

There are no standard guidelines for how much time on your devices is “healthy” and for many of us, digital devices are necessary to live out our daily lives. But if you think you might have a problem with your screen time, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I sleeping well?
  • Am I eating well?
  • Am I leaving the house and being social?
  • Is my work going well?
  • Am I physically active?

If your screen use begins to interfere with any of these areas of your life, it might be time to take a step back. Like most things in life, moderation is key when it comes to maintaining a healthy relationship with your screens. Excessive screen use can slowly and quietly chip away at your productivity and well-being, so it’s important to set limits and prioritize your wellness.

Tips for Managing Your Screen Time

  • Schedule screen-free time. Aim for at least three to four hours daily without screens to engage in offline activities and nurture real-world connections.
  • Take regular breaks. Follow the 20-20-20 rule to protect your eyes: every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break to focus on something 20 feet away.
  • Establish a digital curfew. Avoid screens at least one hour before bedtime to get a better night’s sleep.
  • Manage notifications. Disable unimportant notifications that might tempt you to check your device more often.
  • Put it away. If you struggle with checking your device constantly, it might help to keep it in another room for a period of time to minimize temptation.

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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