The use of screens has become nearly inescapable in our daily lives. Screens are the medium through which we access entertainment, work, socialise, study and shop. During recent events, we’ve seen screen time surge with the entire world moving towards digital solutions, so it’s important to understand the negative impacts of too much screen time and best practices to mitigate this.
Screen Time: Could Your Screen Usage Be Doing More Harm Than Good?
Feel like you're spending a lot of time in front of screens? Too much screen time can pose significant health risks.
06 May, 2020
Screen time: what is it and how much is occurring?
Screen time is (to state the obvious) the amount of time you spend in front of a screen, whether that be a computer, phone, tablet, TV, gaming console or another type of electronic device. On average, adults spend about 11 hours a day staring at some kind of screen, while children spend around six, and these numbers are constantly rising year on year. If we’re only awake for 16 hours in the day, this means adults are spending nearly 70% of their waking day in front of a screen, and kids 40%! To add to this, since isolation began, the Australian National Broadband Network (NBN) has seen a daytime usage increase of 70-80 percent in comparison to February’s usage, while streaming sites such as Netflix have had to reduce their video quality in some countries in an effort to keep up with the demand of its users.
Effects on Sleep
Too much light emitted from video screens at night can affect melatonin production (the hormone responsible for bringing on sleep) by fooling the brain into thinking the body isn’t ready for sleep. Researchers have now pinpointed how certain cells in the eye process ambient light and reset our internal clocks, known as our circadian rhythm. This means when you are scrolling through Instagram before lights out, you are tricking your body and brain into thinking it might be 12 noon instead of midnight, this can then obviously lead to sleep disturbance. For some, sleep disturbance affects their mood, potentially causing or exacerbating anxiety and/or depression. There is also increasing evidence that the correlation between screen time and sleep deprivation might affect children and teenagers even more than adults, this is due to their brains still going through developmental changes.
To help with a good night’s rest and minimise the effects of screen time on your sleep, try to turn screens off at least two hours before it’s time to call it a night, which will limit the blue light disturbing your circadian rhythm. You can also purchase glasses to block blue light, these can help in lowering your exposure leading up to bedtime.
Other impacts on our sleep could be Stress (Google have allegedly reported a spike in searches about ‘strange dreams’ since we’ve been socially distancing) and Caffeine. myDNA’s Caffeine insights can provide insight into how your body processes caffeine, and what that might mean for your sleep.
Effects on Mental Health of Children
While excess screen time is bad for anyone, emerging research is showing it can be especially damaging for children due to their brains already undergoing so much change. This can affect their mental health and even bring about attention problems, along with anxiety and depression. To understand if screen time like video games and social media usage is impacting your kids, consider these questions about them.
Are your kids:
- Sleeping enough?
- Physically healthy?
- Engaged with school?
- Connecting socially with family and friends, online and offline?
- Enjoying a variety of hobbies and interests?
- Having fun and learning while using screens?
- Browsing quality content?
If the answer is yes to all or most of these, then your child is probably using screens in a balanced way as part of a healthy lifestyle. If they are struggling, it may be time to communicate and educate them around this topic.
These same questions can be useful for adults who suspect they’re spending too much time in front of screens as well, particularly if the answers have changed in the last couple of months.
Screen time and Weight Gain
A report from the Pancreatic Cancer Action found strong evidence showing increased screen time also increases the risk of weight gain and obesity. This finding was again particularly strong with children.
Obviously, just looking at a screen won’t lead to weight gain, but they are linked with inactivity which, over long periods of time, can obviously increase the chances of health conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Sedentary behaviour can also interfere with your appetite, making it harder to recognise when you are full.
Screens can flood our kids’ brains with dopamine, leading to addictive behaviours that drive up screen time and decrease physical activity. This is the most obvious link to the risks of weight gain, but the impacts on sleep mentioned earlier also play a negative role.
Whether you’re worried about your children, or yourself, to help avoid excess weight gain, it’s important to get up and move around every hour or so to maintain some form of activity. The World Health Organization recommends children aged 5-17 should aim for 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily, where adults are recommended to do 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity throughout the week.
A brisk walk is the best way to help reset your screen time, get some physical activity in and give your brain, eyes and body a much-needed break from the screen. Walking is also known to be one of the best forms of exercise for our mental health.
Effects on Physical Health
Excess screen time can also cause physical conditions such as “computer vision syndrome”. The symptoms associated with this include strained, dry eyes, blurred vision and headaches.
How you interact with your digital setup is important for mitigating some of these physical problems, such as the distance between your eyes and your screen. While you can safely hold a newspaper or book closer to your face to see what you’re doing, the viewing range that is safe and effective for a computer screen is different.
Good ergonomics are key
Your chair or desk may also be at the wrong height for you, contributing to difficulty seeing. This can add other types of physical strain like neck or shoulder tension which increase muscle tension elsewhere, including around your eyes or jaw.
Design your space in an ergonomic way to minimise the negative physical effects. Here is a list of places to start.
- Good working posture – Establish one with a relaxed posture that doesn’t require stressful angles or excessive reaching
- Proper display height and distance – Ergonomics dictates that individuals not be required to turn their neck to view a display
- Adjust your chairs and desk height accordingly
- Keyboard and mice position – Position to minimise reaching and awkward movements
- Environmental setting – Don’t forget about the lighting, temperature and humidity.
Limiting Screen Time
To make sure you’re not overdoing it on screen time follow the 20-20-20 rule.
Look away from the screen every 20 minutes or so
Look at something 20 feet away
For about 20 seconds
And, although not usually a conscious behaviour, try to blink often to keep your eyes moist.
If you’re looking for more drastic improvements, you could try a digital detox. This is where you refrain from all screens for a set period. People that have chosen to do this have reported boosts to their mood, mental health and general well-being. While most people must stay connected due to work or other life needs, if you can find a time to put your devices down for 1 or 2 days, even over the weekend, you might start to notice improvements.
Self-awareness is key to avoiding the pitfalls of excessive screen time. Society is reliant on our digital devices to keep us connected and make our lives more efficient, but if this is also having a strain on your mental or physical health then it’s important to not get lost in the screen, which is the challenge a lot of us are facing at the moment.
Try and devote some time to have a break from screens over this coming week.
Get outside (weather permitting), enjoy some screen-free exercise or have a shot at some meditation, these things will help to alleviate the symptoms of excess screen time to improve your sleep, boost your mood and your general well-being.
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