Technology has revolutionized our lives. It has brought us convenience and ease within our daily routines and given us access to boundless amounts of information, literally at the tip of our fingers. We are continually advancing in the world of technology, and you can find almost any object today with a screen attached to it. But in a day and age when everything from books to cars to watches have screens, how are we supposed to know how much screen time is too much?
When most people think of setting screen time guidelines or limits, we often immediately think of children. Kids today grow up with and are surrounded by more technology than we ever were. With so much technology available, it’s important to make sure our children are spending time away from it. But this doesn’t just go for kids; this is important for adults as well.
Unfortunately, measuring screen time has become increasingly difficult as we continually fill the spare moments in the day by checking social media, streaming videos, and reading articles. Not to mention most of our work or school is now done in front of a screen. Screen exposure is everywhere, so much so that we may not even realize how much time we are spending looking at devices. A 2018 poll revealed that 28% of adults are constantly online. 1 Even more, some adults are reportedly checking their phones as often as every 10 minutes.
So, what constitutes screen time? Broadly, screen time is defined as any activity done in front of a screen. However, it is important to remember not all screen time is created equal. When measuring your own screen time or setting screen-time limits, you should only be counting the leisure hours each day looking at screens—this is not including time spent on work or school activities. It is also essential to consider what type of screen a person is looking at, why you’re looking at it, and most importantly, what you’re forgoing to spend time on those screens.
Screen-time guidelines are not the same for everyone. Many things go into consideration when determining how much screen time you should expose yourself to. Of course, everyone has different situations and may benefit from having more or less exposure to screens dependent on their environment, but the following can be considered a Screen Time Guide for All Ages.
Screen Time Guidelines for All Ages
Screen exposure can begin early in life; however, it is recommended that children between the ages of 0 and 2 have no screen time. During a child’s early toddler years, human interaction is critically important for development. The more screen time they have, the more they are missing out on opportunities to grow and learn within their environments.
Children between the ages of 2 and 5 years old should have no more than 60 minutes of screen time per day. During this age, children begin to enjoy watching their favorite characters from cartoons or movies on screen, making it a quick way to entertain and keep kids occupied. Regardless, children should be encouraged to engage with these characters off-screen through playtime and books. Keeping them active will continue to support their physical and mental development.
School Aged Children
As children start school, they should begin to learn a balance between school and screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends school-age children and teens aim to limit screen time to two hours a day. However, this is a guideline with flexibility for special circumstances and shouldn’t come at the expense of sleep, extracurricular activities, and schoolwork.
The same goes for adults. It should be a goal to limit our screen time to two hours. However, adults often find it more difficult to put a limit on how much time is spent in front of screens. This is because we are required to do more tasks that may involve extended amounts of screen time.
The most important thing to think about when limiting your own screen time is, how much value are you getting out of it? If your screen time is starting to displace activities you find more meaningful, that’s a sign you may want to reconsider your use.
The Downsides of Too Much Screen Time
Setting screen time limits is increasingly vital as exposing yourself to too much screen time has been found to lead to adverse health effects. Research has found that extensive screen exposure can lead to increased risk for inactivity, obesity, insomnia and sleep disturbances, and depressive symptoms.
One study looked at adults aged 45 years and above and found that obesity rates increase with greater screen time, independent of physical activity. 2 Similarly, another study focusing on screen-based entertainment in relation to cardiovascular disease (CVD) found that screen-viewing time is related to increased mortality and CVD risk. This is because prolonged time spent sitting, regardless of physical activity participation, increased inflammatory and metabolic risk factors. 3
Additionally, screen time has been shown to create sleep disturbances, ultimately resulting in insomnia. A poll shows that 90% of Americans engage with technology an hour before bed. According to studies, using interactive devices such as computers and cell phones before bed was significantly related to difficulty falling asleep. 4 Likewise, low physical activity and high amounts of screen time were associated with increased risks of mental health problems and poor sleep quality.
Further, another study found that depressive symptoms in adults increased as time in front of the TV increased. 5 This is thought to be because those spending more time in front of screens may be spending more time in isolation.
Of course, with these studies, the question of correlation and causation arises. Is increased screen time a cause in developing these conditions? Or, is increased screen time simply the result of them?
Regardless, studies have shown there are benefits to reducing screen time. One recent study found that those reducing the use of social media to 30 minutes a day experienced significant reductions in loneliness, depression, anxiety, and improved overall well-being. 6 In another study, researchers found that taking periodic breaks from the screen can ultimately provide more mental clarity, increase productivity, and provide physical comfort. 7
With all this in mind, it is easy to understand why trying to set boundaries on screen time is more critical than ever before. If you suspect you may, in fact, be guilty of spending too much time looking at various devices throughout the day, you may want to reconstruct your relationship with your screens.
Take the Screen Time Challenge
Taking the challenge to reduce your screen time exposure has become a popular trend. In 2019, a popular challenge arose called the #ScreenTimeChallenge, which urged people to discover and screenshot their screen time on their phones and post that screenshot to social media with their reaction to their screen time.
Challengers were then encouraged to share in the post what they might do if they got just one of those screen-filled hours back. By doing these types of challenges, you can gain an understanding of the patterns of your screen time activity and which parts are problematic.
If you genuinely want to push yourself to transform your relationship with screened devices, you can try a “digital detox.” One version involves ditching television, video games, and the Internet during your free time for 30 days. Once those 30 days are up, you can rebuild your screen habits from scratch, adding back in the ones you think are beneficial while leaving out the ones that aren’t.
However, this may be a little extreme or unrealistic for many of us (including myself), so instead, I challenge you to follow these five strategies to reduce your screen time for one week:
1. Keep the Phone Out of the Bedroom
Research has found that nearly one in four people grab their phones less than a minute after getting up each morning. This can cause your day to start off distracted or even generate stress and feelings of anxiety. By keeping your phone in a different room, you remove the convenience and temptation of grabbing your phone.
Also, by keeping your phone out of the bedroom, you may experience better sleep. Cell phones give off what’s known as blue light, and studies suggest blue light can hinder melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone, production and disrupt our circadian rhythms. 8 As a result, moving all phone chargers out of the bedroom and investing in a real alarm clock can benefit your health in more ways than one.
2. Ditch the Screen During Meals
Twenty-nine percent of people report using their phones during mealtimes, and 72% consume their meals in front of the TV. Mealtimes are the perfect opportunity to interact with your family and friends. Further, research has even found that those who use their phones during mealtimes feel more distracted and less socially engaged, leading to a drop in enjoyment. 9
On top of that, this type of distracted eating can pose issues if you are watching what you eat. When not being mentally present at mealtime, mindful eating seems to disappear, and it becomes too easy to make poor choices without even thinking.
3. Unplug During Vacation
Research has found that 53% of Americans admit they’ve never unplugged when on vacation and check their phones up to 80 times per day. Vacations are intended to be designated time to unwind and relax. To do so, it is crucial to distance yourself from the daily stressors such as social media, email, and text messages.
4. Avoid Screen Time At Least One Hour Before Bed
As previously discussed, screen time before bed can cause trouble falling and staying asleep. Instead of scrolling through your phone or watching TV before bed, try reading a book, journaling, or meditating to unwind and prepare your body to get a good night’s rest. Giving your body a good night’s sleep can improve your brain health, metabolism, and mental health, and reduce your risk for disease.
5. Disable Your Notifications
Notifications are distracting and tempt you to stop what you’re doing to look at your phone. Turning off notifications on your phone can help you focus more on the present and be more productive during the day.