Screen time is on the rise. As a result of all those hours watching television, scrolling on a phone, and staring at a laptop your health may take a serious hit. Researchers say the average American spends nearly 24 hours a week online. The mental and physical effects can lead to anxiety, poor posture, sleep issues, weight gain, risk of heart disease, and even a potentially damaged brain.
“Anything with a screen—television, phones, tablets, computers, video games—constitutes screen time,” explains Tom Kersting, a licensed psychotherapist and an expert in the field of mental health and parenting in the digital age. “If the majority of our waking hours entails looking at a screen, then we know it is way too much.”
Here are five ways screen time impacts your health and how to set realistic boundaries with technology.
Increased screen time may lead to depression or anxiety.
All the hours we spend in front of screens can negatively impact your mental and emotional state as a whole. Studies abound regarding the relationship between screen time and mental health. The research is particularly telling in terms of the impact on children and young adults. Experts suggest that higher levels of screen time can not only boost depression or suicidal behaviors, but they can also lower one’s ability to read emotions in general.
For adults, it’s much of the same. Too much screen time is directly linked to symptoms of depression or anxiety. It overloads your senses, reduces your ability to focus, messes with your attention span, and sometimes creates a vicious comparison trap. The result is declining mental and emotional health, Kersting says, with a staggering increase in anxiety, depression, and suicide.
“Screens can help us access information, viewpoints, and worldviews we might not experience otherwise,” says Aaptiv trainer Katie Horwitch. “However, screens can also be a gateway to tuning out and shutting off. Not only can we escape through mindless games, but we can also curate our social-media feeds so that the only opinions and lifestyles we see are ones that look like our own. The comparison trap is real. Instead of living our own lives, we can become stuck living vicariously through someone else’s. Many times, we berate ourselves for not living life ‘as well’ as someone else. Sometimes that someone else is someone we don’t even know!”
Looking at screens all day can hurt your eyes, ears, neck, shoulders, back, wrists, and forearms.
According to Kersting, too much screen time can hurt your body physically. It can lead to vision problems, substantial back and neck pain from bending to constantly look at a device, and hearing loss from wearing headphones with a device, just to name a few.
For example, looking down puts extra stress on your neck. This places your spine in an unnatural position that strains the muscles, nerves, and ligaments (otherwise known as “text neck”). When you spend a lot of time texting, typing, or looking things up on the internet, you may experience cramping or soreness throughout your wrists, fingers, or forearms. And staring at a screen for long periods of time can result in dry eyes, blurred or strained vision, and headaches.
Instead, take breaks from sitting to stand, walk around, or stretch. Make sure your chair, couch, or sitting position provides ample back support. Plus, when looking at a screen or device, try to keep it closer to eye level and straight ahead.
Too much screen time interferes with getting a good night’s sleep.
You’ve probably been told to put electronics away before bedtime for better sleep. The reason? Gadgets emit blue light. This interferes with your internal clock and confuses the body in terms of when to sleep and when to stay awake. Such light also decreases the amount of melatonin the body produces, making it harder to benefit from sleep-related hormones in the evening. (That’s not even counting the notifications from emails or texts that may wake you up and interrupt a sleep cycle!)
To sleep more soundly, keep screens out of the bedroom. Additionally, try to avoid them for at least an hour before you climb into bed. If you have to use an electronic device, turn down the brightness on your screen or give blue-light-blocking glasses a try.
It can lead to weight gain and increase your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
On that same note, one study of 177,000 students found that insufficient sleep was not only associated with increased screen time, but it also led to weight gain. It’s a cycle. Spending a great deal of time in front of a screen, no matter the type, promotes sitting. When you’re constantly sitting and distracted by a device, it’s easy to mindlessly eat or fail to make healthy food and drink choices.
Heart health is impacted by the inactivity related to screen time too. This includes leading to higher risk of conditions like diabetes or symptoms such as increased blood pressure or cholesterol and dangerous blood-sugar levels. Some researchers even claim that watching too much television impacts how long you live.
Luckily, the remedy for this one is somewhat straightforward. Develop a workout routine to keep your body strong, and stick with it. One workout won’t counteract hours of screen time, but maintaining a regular practice of physical movement helps give your body a break.
All that screen time rewires your brain—in a bad way.
“Too much screen time can change brain functionality,” Kersting notes. “This is known as neuroplasticity. Anything that the brain is engaged in for three hours or more per day that is considered highly stimulating will rewire the brain’s circuitry. And we know the average person is spending way more than three hours per day using screens. Essentially, the brain will adapt to the new cyber environment by growing new neural pathways. The neural pathways that are not being utilized enough get pruned away.”
It’s true. With screen addiction, your brain experiences impaired structure and functionality. For instance, too much screen time literally causes your brain to lose volume. This affects your abilities to plan, prioritize, manage impulses, and develop compassion for others as well as the ability to communicate from one lobe to another, which slows down cognitive signals entirely. A 2017 study made a similar conclusion for children. Time spent on screens decreases brain connectivity, whereas reading a book does the exact opposite.
Because screen time can have an extremely negative effect on health, Horwitch recommends setting clear boundaries with screens to avoid developing detrimental habits. The goal isn’t to avoid screen time entirely, as that’s probably not realistic in modern life. However, if you’re going to use a device, be mindful.
“Although this may sound ambitious, every other expert I’ve spoken with and I agree that two hours per day should be the limit,” Kersting advises. “Look at it like this: Going to the gym for an hour or two per day is very good for your health. Going to the gym for nine hours per day is very bad for your health. It’s all about balance.”