“What You Need to Know Now” is a blogazine series that explores both the value and risk factors of today’s digital landscape.  This section is part 2 of 6.

Executive Summary:  This article explores some of the consequences of excessive screen time (ie: sleep deprivation, depression, obesity, cognitive effects) and offers screen time recommendations for achieving an optimal balance of time spent online and offline.  It suggests that children would benefit from digital health and wellness education starting at an early age and continuing through adolescence. 

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The digital era has changed people’s lifestyles in so many positive and empowering ways.  It has opened up new opportunities, increased access to education and information, and offered new tools for safety and convenience.  But it is important that people are also mindful of the possible drawbacks of online activity, including the effect excessive screen time can have on their physical and emotional wellness. So, how much screen time is too much? When is screen time OK? A healthy online/offline balance is absolutely achievable with effective awareness and communication about how to manage one’s technology behavior. 

The key is education.  Lawmakers, researchers, educational institutions, tech and media companies are eager to to help community members recognize healthy and unhealthy digital habits and understand how to self-monitor their online time.  Fortunately, many businesses and thought-leaders have already stepped up to offer solutions to help people use technology optimally. By empowering people with both an understanding of the consequences of spending too much time online as well as the strategies they need to mitigate those consequences, these businesses and thought-leaders aim to collectively improve the mental and physical health of technology users.

Below are some of the potential consequences of too much time online and strategies for navigating these challenges successfully.

Sleep Deprivation and Blue Light

Smart phones, tablets and other devices typically emit blue light, which can cause blurry vision, headaches, and also trick the brain into thinking it’s daylight, which suppresses the secretion of melatonin when you need it–at night.  Using these devices in the evening hours can lead to sleeplessness and can significantly shift circadian rhythms.  This physiological effect paired with the psychological stimulation often leads to “vamping” habits, which further exacerbate the problem.  “Unlike TV, smartphones and tablets can be silently carried into the bedroom or even the bed, resulting in some teens using them throughout the night,” says Dr. Jean Twenge, researcher, author and professor of psychology.  “That might explain why sleep deprivation among teens spiked after 2012–just as smartphone use became common.”  Her research revealed that sleep deprivation was twice as likely among 2-to-10-year-olds and 44% more likely among teenagers when they had four or more hours of screen time per day.

SCREEN TIME RECOMMENDATIONS:  Avoid looking at bright screens 2-3 hours before bedtime.  Many tech companies have stepped up to combat the blue light emission issue, introducing features such as Apple’s Night Shift and Dark Mode and Facebook’s Dark Mode in development (for all operating systems), which adjust the screen color scheme so that it projects darker, less disruptive light at night.  There are also blue light blocking glasses available. People should consider putting their phones on silent or do not disturb at night and during the day when it could be a distraction.  Dr. Twenge suggests using a traditional alarm clocked instead of a phone alarm and charging devices outside the bedroom at night so there is less temptation.

Digital Wellness Network

The Digital Wellness Network is a public-private coalition of corporations, nonprofits and educators committed to mitigating the negative impact of unhealthy technology use by empowering students with the skills to make safe and informed decisions about technology.

Depression and Upward Social Comparison: A Reason For Limiting Screen Time

Studies have shown causal links of television and social media use with depression and loneliness in young people.  Video games and other forms of digital consumption did not show the same link, suggesting that perhaps it is the idealized lifestyles and physical appearances depicted on TV and in social media that lead to upward social comparison.  Comparing oneself to people whom they perceive as having qualities they feel they lack, can potentially lead to negative thoughts or harmful behavior. , Given the numerous platforms and opportunities for consumption and comparison, these negative thoughts can happen hundreds of times a day. Excess time can displace children and young adults from engaging in positive, enriching offline activities, such as face-to-face socializing, reading a book, or physical exercise.

FINDING BALANCE:  It is important to understand what constitutes unhealthy technology habits and then find ways to limit screen time and social media accordingly.  Now, most smartphones allow you to track your screen time, including usage statistics by day, by week, and by app.  Apple’s Screen Time, Google’s Digital Wellbeing, and Instagram’s Your Activity allow users to view their activity levels in detail as well as set time limit parameters with notifications or lock-outs when reached.  Businesses that may not be directly in the digital media space can also find creative ways to use their platform to help address this issue.  StubHub’s #TicketForward program awards deserving kids and adults with exciting, offline event experiences.  Research shows that attending live events reduces stress, boosts happiness, and has lasting health benefits.

Obesity and Sedentary Screen Time

Too much screen time has been linked to obesity both directly and indirectly.  More than 81% of teens don’t get enough physical activity and 41 million children under the age of 5 are overweight or obese, according to a report from the World Health Organization.  Texting, posting to social media, playing online games, and consuming digital content are sedentary activities and often take the place of exercise.  Research also suggests that sleep loss, a symptom of digital overload, may increase a person’s blood sugar levels, throwing them into a prediabetic state and reducing their production of leptin (a hormone that indicates fullness after eating).

FINDING BALANCE:  Regularly engaging in hands-on activities and physical exercise–a baby playing with real (not virtual) building blocks or a teen playing on a sports team–is key for cognitive and physical health.  Participating in these activities outdoors is even better–exposure to sunlight will promote sleep at night, as well as boost mood and alertness during the day.  It is important to foster good habits and routines at a young age, as those set early in life often stay with children as they grow up.

Cognitive Development and Screen Time Recommendations by Age

Excessive screen time may be associated with poorer motor and cognitive development.  MRI scans found significant differences and possible deterioration in the brains of children who spend more than seven hours per day using smartphones, tablets, and video games, according to an ongoing NIH study.  Those reporting more than two hours per day of screen time scored lower on thinking and language tests.  The effects start with babies. Digital games and apps are being designed to capture children’s attention, but unlike older kids, babies aren’t able to transfer what they’ve learned on an iPad to the real world, where it matters.  “For all of us–but most especially young children–sleep, exercise, and screen time have profound effects on children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development,” says Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

FINDING BALANCE:  To be clear: eliminating screen time altogether is not the answer.  Moderate screen time is a positive thing. Coming of age in this high-tech, highly-connected climate offers many opportunities for rising generations to grow, learn, foster relationships, and more.  Dr. Twenge finds that adolescents who are completely disconnected are not the most well-adjusted. Her screen time recommendations for leisure use (i.e. not for work or school) is 30 minutes to two hours per day for adolescents, combined with adequate sleep and healthy and fulfilling offline activities.  It is advised that children two-to-five years old should engage in no more than one hour of sedentary screen time and babies younger than 18-to-24 months should avoid digital media use altogether, except for video chatting.  In addition to sheer time, the quality of screen interaction should be considered.  High quality digital tools include educational and age-appropriate material that children can apply to the real world.

Cultivating Healthy Habits in the Digital Age: Responsible Screen Time 

Responsible Screen Time is a critical 21st century skill that children (and their parents) must be taught early and often.  They will benefit from learning how to maximize the benefits of technology and, most importantly, when screen time is OK..  Overusing technology has led to a variety of health problems among children and adults, and leading technology companies have made efforts to improve digital practices among youth.  EVERFI’s Digital Wellness Network brings together such thought-leaders–including video game producers, hardware manufacturers, telecom companies, cable providers, and entertainment and media experts–to spearhead a digital literacy education movement nationwide.

Digital Wellness Network

The Digital Wellness Network is a public-private coalition of corporations, nonprofits and educators committed to mitigating the negative impact of unhealthy technology use by empowering students with the skills to make safe and informed decisions about technology.