How Much Screen MassNews Is Too Much for Adults?

TWe were all affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic, which changed many aspects of our lives. Research published in 2021 found that Americans in their early twenties used their phones an average of 28.5 hours per week in 2020—up from 25.9 hours per week in 2018. One review of studies conducted in 2020 and 2021 put the estimates even higher, finding that average screen time for adults in the U.S. and other countries increased 60–80% from before the pandemic.

Screen time is a problem for children and teens. It’s been linked to psychological problems, such as higher rates of depression and anxiety, as well as health issues like poor sleep and higher rates of obesity. Many researchers believe that excessive screen use may not be as damaging to adults, but the impact hasn’t been studied as extensively. Research has shown that excessive screen use can have serious consequences such as impaired sleep quality, digital eye strain and mental disorders.

How much screen time should adults be allowed to watch? That’s the wrong question, experts say. The content you’re consuming actually matters more than the overall time you spend on your phone, says Yalda T. Uhls, an assistant adjunct professor of psychology at UCLA and former movie executive who studies the health effects of screen time. Watching a documentary on your phone, for instance, doesn’t have the same impact as mindlessly scrolling Instagram.

“What researchers have been saying for the past 10 to 15 years is that what’s challenging about the time-limit focus is that it takes away from the content conversation, and the content conversation should be what we are leading with,” she says.

That’s why you shouldn’t necessarily freak out if your weekly iPhone screen-time report pings you with a high number, says Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician, epidemiologist, and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, who has studied screen time in all age groups. The total amount of screen time isn’t as important as the breakdown of how you spent it, he says. Social media time is the biggest concern according to many experts. “We can’t simply count all screen time as the same,” Christakis says. “Look at things you think of as being entirely recreational or entirely a waste of your time, and ask yourself, is there a way that time could have been better spent?”

Uhls advises you to ask five critical questions when your screen time feels excessive.

  1. How do you get to sleep?
  2. Is your diet healthy?
  3. Do you enjoy getting out of the house to be social?
  4. Are you happy with your job?
  5. Is your body active?

“If all of these things are happening, then I wouldn’t worry about your screen time,” Uhls says.

Experts are not likely to recommend a universal limit on screen-time, however, these guidelines, which have been researched and validated by researchers, can be helpful.

For better mental health, limit social media use to between 30-60 minutes per week

Social media has been identified as one of the most difficult types to find content over the years. In 2018, a study was published in The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology Examined how Snapchat and Instagram affected the mental well-being of 143 college students. If these young people showed depressive symptoms at the start of the study, then reduced their social-media use to just 10 minutes per day on each platform—a total of 30 minutes on social media per day—for three weeks, their symptoms of depression and loneliness decreased.

Melissa Hunt (associate director of clinical training at the University of Pennsylvania’s department of psychology) was the study author. She has also conducted follow-up studies. One, published in 2021, found that college students who used social media for 30 minutes per day—what the researchers described as a “modest” amount of time—had the highest well-being compared to those who either didn’t use social media at all or who used it excessively. “They’re the most connected, the least lonely, the least depressed compared to people who use way too much, but also compared to people who use none,” she says.

Hunt says that her second, forthcoming follow-up study found that it was better for college students’ mental health to post and engage with others on social media (versus passively scrolling) and to follow people they actually knew in real life versus strangers, celebrities, and influencers (who tend to focus on crafting the perfect image of their lives, which can lead to unhealthy social comparisons). “Celebrities and influencers exaggerate all the negative effects of social media,” including social comparison and body dissatisfaction, she says.

“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 very problematic. My advice is if you’re going to use social media, follow friends for about one hour a day”—a number she bases on the findings of other studies suggesting that “60 minutes is probably the sweet spot,” and the fact that it’s a more realistic goal for people to shoot for than 30 minutes a day.

You can spend three to four hours a day without using screens

You can also avoid spending too much time on screens to create a better relationship. Christakis suggests that everyone should be able to spend three-to four hours every day away from their screens. His research has found screen time affects children’s language skills and is correlated with potential behavior problems. “I think what we really need to focus on as a society is having other more healthy, traditional ways of engaging with the people in front of you or even with yourself,” he says.

Make sure to spend at least some time outdoors and avoid screen time in order to reap the maximum benefits. One 2020 study conducted in Canada surveyed people during the pandemic and found that when people did two habits together—limiting screen time and exercising outdoors—they got the biggest boosts to their mental and general health, compared to people who increased their screen time or didn’t exercise outdoors.

For better sleep, stop using your screens for at least one hour prior to bedtime

Gregory Marcus, Associate Chief of Cardiology for Research at UCSF Health studied screen use and sleep during the Health eHeart Study. It is a global ongoing study that includes over 80 participants aged 18 to 80. The team he worked with found that screen time within the hour before bed can make it difficult for people to fall asleep, and also affects sleep duration and quality.

“For people who have difficulty sleeping, whether it’s falling asleep or maintaining sleep, I would recommend leaving your phone in another room,” Marcus says. “Make it difficult to get to your phone so you don’t just naturally reach for it.”

For eye health, take a short break each 20 minutes

The eyes can also be damaged by too much screen time. Many adults now have digital eye strain, a condition caused by focusing on close objects—like phone screens—for too long that can lead to eye fatigue, eye pain, and blurred vision, says Dr. Megan Collins, assistant professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins Medicine’s Wilmer Eye Institute. Early research suggests that the increased use of screens during the pandemic could lead to myopia or nearsightedness.

Collins says ophthalmologists often tout the benefits of the 20-20-20 rule—for every 20 minutes you’re on a screen, give your eyes a 20-second break by focusing on something 20 feet or further away. “It helps the eyes from being in this prolonged state of accommodation and focusing on things up close,” she says.

Set even lower limits for yourself if you’re a parent

Recent research has found that too much screen time can have detrimental effects on children’s memory, attention, communication, and social and language skills. One study in the Journal published in this journal shows that screen time can be acceptable for parents. BMC Public Health found that adults who limit their own screen time are more likely to also limit their children’s screen time.

“It is not just the presence of screen time rules and restrictions that is important, but also the support through adult modeling of low screen use,” the study authors wrote. “Parents who model low screen time are more likely to impose stricter screen time rules on their children. In contrast, if parents are high screen users themselves, their efforts to impose screen time restrictions for children are more likely to fail.”

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