When new studies and guidelines make reference to the general term “screen time,” children and teens – along with parents – tend to draw the focus of most research and analysis. And rightfully so.

Studies continually show that the amount of time a child spends in front of a TV, computer, tablet or video game can have tangible effects on his or her mental, physical and social development. From obesity to high blood pressure to self-esteem, research tends to overwhelmingly support the goals set forth through guidelines created by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 2013:

Screen Time“The AAP discourages any screen time for children less than 2 years of age,” stated a recent study by the University of Michigan. “For older children, the AAP recommends no more than two hours [of screen time] daily.”

Last spring, the University of Michigan Mott Children’s Hospital released the results of a poll which found that one-quarter of parents of kids 2 to 5 years old allow more than three hours of “entertainment screen time” each day – certainly exceeding the AAP guidelines.

The issue?

“When you get to three or four hours each day, that screen time crowds out other important activities that babies and young kids should be engaging in: looking at books, going for walks or playing outside,” said Matthew M. Davis, M.D., M.A.P.P., director of the poll.

This certainly makes sense, but why focus solely on the shortcomings of children and parents? Can’t the same logic related to the sedentary nature implied by “screen time” apply to adults? It certainly should, especially when you consider the stats.

According to numbers released by eMarketer in July of 2013, the average U.S. adult spends more than nine and a half hours each day on a computer, mobile device or watching television. The scope of research on how such vast amounts of screen time affect adults is relatively slim, but what is out there uncovers what you might expect:

  • A 2011 analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association found a connection between high rates of television watching and higher rates of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
  • In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published the conclusion that there’s “strong and consistent evidence in both children and adults … that screen time is directly associated with increased overweight and obesity.”

cell phone usageEven when used for light leisure – say, using an e-reader or tablet in lieu of a favorite paperback at bedtime – screen time can negatively affect sleep and sleep patterns, according to a study recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We found that the use of these devices before bedtime prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep, delays the circadian clock, suppresses levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, reduces the amount and delays the timing of REM sleep, and reduces alertness the following morning,” wrote Anne-Marie Chang, the leader of the study. Such effects, she added, “can have adverse impacts on performance, health and safety.”

So it appears the health consequences of too much screen time don’t discriminate based on age. What does that mean for adults who rely so heavily on computers, tablets and smartphones to stay connected, informed, entertained and employed?

Consider the following advice in order to become more aware and more disciplined when it comes to your digital habits:

Practice Thoughtful Screen Time: Break the habit of mindlessly flipping on your tablet or checking your Twitter feed on your smartphone whenever you have a couple minutes of downtime. Be more mindful of your screen time. It won’t be easy at first, but you can start by logging and tracking your screen time in order to identify bad habits and, through hindsight, consider ways to make more productive use of your downtime. Consider creating a “digital budget” from which you pull every day.

Don’t Sit Through Your Screen Time: Screen time doesn’t have to be synonymous with sedentary behavior, even at work. If you spend most of your workday on a computer, try a stand-up workstation. Go for walks while you listen to the news or your favorite podcast. Practice stretching, yoga or a light, at-home workout while you’re watching TV.

Zone Out Your Digital Access: Yes, the goal of having a tablet or smartphone is that they allow you to access nearly anything anywhere at any time. But that doesn’t mean you have to. Create zones in your life that don’t allow for the use of such digital devices. For instance, keep all screens away from the dinner table, out of the bedroom, and any other area where relaxation and personal interaction should be at a premium. Don’t let screen time ever interfere within said zones.

Swap Pixels for Ink: Since the shorter-wavelength blue light emitted by most digital displays (e.g., an iPad or e-reader) can hurt your sleep cycle, swap your devices for an actual book or magazine later in the day. A well-rested body and mind will thank you the next day.


RESOURCES:

NPR: On More Reason to Reach for a Paper Book Before Bed
PNAS: Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep…
Medical News Today: TV, computer screen time in children linked to high blood pressure
Medical News Today: Excessive screen time affects children’s well-being
Medical News Today: Limiting Media Devices for Young Children
JAMA: Television viewing and risk of type 2 diabetes, cadio disease and all-cause mortality
AdAge: U.S. Adults Now Spending More Time on Digital Devices Than Watching TV
Wisconsin State Journal: I screen, you screen: Should you unplug your child?
LetsMove.gov: Reduce Screen Time and Get Active
USDA: Decrease Screen Time
Alliance for a Healthier Generation: Decrease Screen Time