EVERFI Content Team

Responsible screen time is a topic at the forefront of conversations because, today, more than 77% of Americans age 10 and up own a smartphone, with many more owning other devices including tablets, computers, gaming consoles, televisions, and everything in-between. Screen time is the concept of total time spent on these devices or in engaging with a screen. With reports by MIT showing that the average American spends 24 hours per week online (with some in significantly higher ranges), screen time has an important and noticeable effect on the daily lives of children and adults.

While a large amount of screen time is by no means necessarily negative thing and we aren’t advocating eliminating screen time, (e.g., many people work on computers and do not experience a large number of negative effects), screen time is recognized as having a significant impact on health through isolation, sleep changes, distraction and attention span, sitting, and other concerns. Understanding screen time and how it likely affects you or your children will give you the information needed to make good decisions about screen time.

What is Screen Time?

Screen time is quite simply the time spent on a screen on any device. While many people are more concerned about screen time on smart devices, it includes but is not limited to television, computers, smartphones, tablets, and gaming consoles including handheld. These devices each reduce the individual to someone who primarily interacts with or simply watches a screen.

Individuals have been expressing concern about screen time since the introduction of the television, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that many became concerned about how much people were watching and started advocating for responsible screen time. Today, screen time has peaked, tripling from an average of eight hours per week on the Internet in 2000 to 24 in 2018, which doesn’t include console gaming, offline phone usage, or simply watching television.

What does that mean for individuals? Not as much as you’d think. Patterns of use, rather than volume of use, is more impactful for most, meaning that using screens carefully is more important than using less.

EVERFI Digital Wellness Network

We are committed to mitigating the negative impact of unhealthy technology use by empowering students to make safe and healthy decisions about technology.

Screen Time and Sleep

Digital screens are well-known to cause issues with sleep, typically through blue-light emission. Today, many computers and phones offer “night mode” where blue-light emissions are cut down to a minimum to interfere with this problem. However, screens interfere with sleep in other ways including distraction and stimulation, which prevent a planned bedtime.

Blue Light – Blue light emissions affect the human circadian rhythm, causing wakefulness and alertness. Individuals exposed to blue light sooner than about 30 minutes before bed show difficulty falling asleep in many studies, leading health experts to suggest that most people stop using devices with blue-light emissions 30 minutes or longer before bed. Here, the duration of exposure is also important. Individuals, especially children, with six or more hours of exposure to blue light per day, suffer significantly more sleep-related issues than those with fewer hours of exposure.

Distraction – Some of us may know the feeling of going on YouTube to watch one video and looking up four hours later on a completely random video, but few would recognize this is a widespread and problematic behavior. Internet usage, chatting with friends, looking at photos, drawing on a device, watching television, and gaming distracts us into staying up significantly longer than we intend, with detrimental effects on daytime wakefulness, alertness, and energy levels the next day.

Stimulation – Media, chatting, and interaction all work as active stimulation, creating a level of alertness in the brain that keeps most of us awake. This will negatively contribute to your ability to fall asleep when you get in bed.

What’s the verdict? Most health experts recommend limiting screen time around bedtime to ensure that it doesn’t impact your sleep schedule. Simply shutting devices down at a specific time and moving to another activity for the rest of the evening will ensure screen time doesn’t impact your sleep-schedule.

Screen Time and Health

Screen time can impact your health in several ways, most notably through eye strain. However, the side-effects of long periods of screen time can be more impactful.

Eye Strain Screen time is very unlikely to permanently damage your eyes. However, it can cause tiredness, pain, headaches, and dry eyes. Most humans blink at about half their normal rate when watching screens, which will negatively impact how you feel.

Sitting – Persons watching screens are most often sitting or not engaging in activity, which can have numerous negative side-effects. While some studies go so far as to claim children involved in watching screens actually consume more calories, most health experts agree that screen time activity simply reduces exercise, which does impact cardiovascular health.

Isolation – Screen time can cause certain isolation in that people are less likely to interact with others in person. However, it can balance with meaningful online social relationships. Screen time can have a negative impact on individuals who do not balance social lives, contributing to poor self-esteem, poor social perceptions, and isolation. However, these problems primarily stem from specific social-media usage rather than screen-specific activities.

What can you practice responsible screen time? Take regular breaks in between screen time, make sure you get enough exercise and stop watching screens if your eyes get tired.

Screen Time for Kids

Most people are more concerned about the impact of screen time on kids and their development. This has been the subject of numerous studies since the 1990s. While many studies actually contradict, most agree that screen time can be both positive and negative. It’s not necessarily about how much time kids spend on screens but rather what they are doing on those screens.

Why? Children who only participate in meaningless and unchallenging activities are unlikely to perform well in development tasks, while those who use screens to play games, to learn, and to challenge themselves are very likely to do well. How can you use this information to make a meaningful decision about what your kids are doing?

Screen Time Tips for Parents

Most devices including televisions and smartphones offer parental-control apps, where parents can assign access to different types of activities. For example, you can unlock gaming after a certain amount of reading has been completed, limit gaming apps to 1 hour a day, and so on. Doing so allows you to manage how children use screens so that they balance activities to include learning and challenge.

Making Responsible Screen Time Decisions

Screens are everywhere. Teaching about screen time is more important than ever, from your television to your smartphone to digital ads on the street, you’re always being asked to watch something. This is truer if you happen to work in an office with a computer, where screen time is actively part of your job description.

The good news is that screen time isn’t necessarily bad, and it won’t necessarily harm your health. Here are some responsible screen time best practices, which are:

  1. Get plenty of exercise. That means about 30+ minutes of light to moderate exercise per day
  2. Take breaks from looking at screens to prevent eye strain
  3. Engage in active and challenging activities such as learning, gaming, or studying in between pure entertainment
  4. Don’t use screens shortly before bed. Most health experts recommend a 30+ minute break before bed
  5. Take time out to engage in social activities and real-world, if you’re spending all your time on a screen, it may not be very fulfilling.

Most of us can very easily use digital screens responsibility, without impacting our health, and without impacting sleep.

EVERFI Digital Wellness Network

We are committed to mitigating the negative impact of unhealthy technology use by empowering students to make safe and healthy decisions about technology.