Screen time: what is it and how much is safe for kids, teens and adults?

Worried you spend too much time on your phone or laptop? Although concerns about screen time preceded the pandemic, our increased use over lockdown has brought this to the fore.

Research by Ofcom shows UK adults spent nearly 45 hours a week on screen-based activities such as watching TV at the height of the first lockdown. Plus, with e-learning forced to become the norm for most of the year, some parents have been very concerned about the impacts on children’s and teens’ wellbeing.

So, what is ‘screen time’? And how much is safe? We spoke to psychologist and child health lecturer Dr Aric Sigman to learn more.

What is screen time?

Screen usage can be split into two categories: ‘non-discretionary’ and ‘discretionary’. The former encompasses most work- and school-related use of screens and is relatively unavoidable and part of our daily modern lives. It’s the latter, also known as ‘recreational’ or ‘entertainment’ screen time, that causes the most concern and it’s this type of usage that most experts refer to when they talk of “screen time” and how many hours we should be spending on it.

“Television, YouTube, computer games, social media – that’s the area that health and development experts are concerned about,” explains Aric. “We’re not talking about children reading the Old Testament or Shakespeare on an iPad. We’re not talking about remote learning.”

According to Aric, the difference boils down to the ‘nature’ of the media and the biological reactions it triggers. Whereas Zoom calls and online lessons are fairly ‘static,’ discretionary screen time usually involves a variety of moving images and sounds.

Additionally, texts also provide a large cognitive load, requiring the brain to work harder – for example, by using its working memory to decipher letters and symbols. As such, this media doesn’t have the same ‘powerful impact’ or ‘sense of immediacy’ that films or computer games may have, so doesn’t trigger excitement or stress.

What are the concerns for children and teens?

Screen time concerns for young people often revolve around mental health. This isn’t surprising, given studies have linked it to anxiety, depression and more. However, there is increasing evidence that the potential effects of unregulated screen time extend far beyond this.

“The concerns about screen time aren’t just one thing,” explains Aric. “It’s everything from increased body fat and type 2 diabetes to inattention, sleep deprivation, body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, screen dependency disorders and even how children’s eyeballs are forming,”

Too much time in front of screens has long been associated with eye strain. However, research suggests close-up viewing of screens may cause myopia (near-sightedness) too.

Plus, as Aric explains, part of the reason for the increased concern lately is that it’s now considered a ‘neurological issue’ too. Preliminary data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study suggests excess screen time may cause premature thinning of the cortex, the part of the brain that processes sensory information.

Are there concerns about adults and screen time?

Until now, the screen time debate has largely focused on children. However, the pandemic has raised concern for adults as well.

But are the potential effects as bad? In short, no. As children’s brains and bodies are still developing, they’re more vulnerable to everything from sunburn to alcohol, including screen time.

Adults aren’t as susceptible to problems like screen dependency, gaming or eating disorders either. “They tend to be more resistant, because their bodies and minds have already developed, and they have a sense of identity,” explains Aric.

“The concerns for adults are really concerns that they’re expressing. They feel they’re spending too much time on their smartphones. With children, it’s their parents and teachers that are worried.”

This difference makes sense given that one of the defining features between children and adults is self-control. Yet, despite this, many of us are finding it difficult to control our own scrolling time.

“That’s what I’m hearing from a lot of adults,” says Aric. “Adults who are successful and assertive in every other way are often slaves to their phones. They seem to be aware but find it difficult to do anything about it.”

In fact, a recent study by King’s College London involving 1,043 participants aged 18-30 found that over one-third (38.9%) reported smartphone addictions.

How much screen time is safe?

The World Health Organization provides clear guidelines on discretionary screen time (referred to as ‘sedentary’) for infants and children under five. Ages two and below should not have any, while children up to five should have a maximum of one hour a day, though ‘less is better.’

Children between ages five to 18, meanwhile, are generally advised not to exceed two hours per day, though specifics vary by country. There’s no consensus on screen time for adults.

As Aric explains, part of the issue with recommending screen time is that it can’t be measured like alcohol or tobacco.

“This is not a substance, it’s a multifactorial behaviour,” he says. “Just to get a handle on it, we have to take numbers and pick general recommendations.

“Until we know more, the safest port of call is to recommend moderation for everybody. Enjoy your screen time as you might alcohol or chocolate – just don’t overdo it.”

Practical tips for cutting down your screen time

From the key boundaries to establish to the best apps to try, here’s how to reduce your screen time.

Differentiate between work and play devices

The first thing to do is to distinguish between your devices, apps and actions. This will help you establish what counts towards the two hours, and what doesn’t.

Essentially, if you need to use it to keep your job, pay your bills or answer important communications, then it’s non-discretionary. Anything else is discretionary.

You can use the same rule of thumb for your kids. Consider what’s necessary for school and what isn’t.

If possible, it’s ideal to physically separate devices, with a different screen for work or schoolwork – especially for children. As Aric explains, the entertainment world is ‘just a tap away’ otherwise.

“Expecting children not to tap that icon, it’s asking too much.”

Keep track of your usage

Knowing how much time you really spend on your devices is vital. Warning: you’ll probably be shocked!

Helpfully, smartphones often have features to track your usage easily. On Android, for example, look for the ‘Digital Wellbeing & parental devices.’ This lets you log handy data like how often you unlock your phone and how many notifications you receive. You can also implement app timers, special modes and controls on notifications from here.

Likewise, ‘Screen Time’ on iOS devices will show you how frequently you use individual apps and websites. Thanks to Family Sharing, you can also see reports for other family members’ devices, plus adjust their settings.

Once you have this information, you can create a plan for screen usage. Aric recommends doing so in writing to make it more concrete.

Give yourself fewer reasons to check your device

According to research by Ofcom, people in the UK check their smartphones every 12 minutes of the waking day. Scary stuff!

Want to reduce that? Make your devices less visually appealing. As Aric highlights, switching to a greyscale setting is likely to make you look at it less often.

Using separate devices for different functions applies here too. Buying a physical watch and alarm clock will give you fewer reasons to check in, as well as create clearer boundaries in your mind. Turning off notifications and noise alerts will also help.

It’s very difficult to say no to these things, which is why people actually have to consciously think about it,” explains Aric.

Instead, check your apps at a designated time, ideally in one batch.

Establish physical boundaries

Setting specific rules about where you use your devices can be helpful for both children and adults.

Aric especially recommends making the dinner table and bedrooms screen-free zones. If you’re a parent, the latter will help you keep a better eye on your children’s screen time too. Otherwise, it will be difficult to know how much they’re watching – and harder to manage it.

“Don’t make a rod for your back. Keep the screens out of those bedrooms. It will make life a lot easier for you and much healthier for your children.”

A digital sunset is a must

Another option is limiting when you can use your phone. Examples of when not to might include while you’re in company, walking somewhere or eating with others – but setting a time at night after which you switch off is especially important.

“Ultimately, everybody – both children and adults – needs a digital sunset. There has to be a time at the end of the day where we just live in the real world and turn off the digital one,” says Aric.

As a minimum, devices should go off at least one hour before bed. If you’re using it into the evening before then, it’s also a good idea to get blue light glasses or screen filters.

Aric also advises turning down the device brightness and holding it further from your face to prevent blue and white light overexposure. “It’s not natural for us to look at a light bulb as the sun’s going down,” he explains.

And lastly, absolutely don’t sleep with your phone within reach.

“It’s like having a window slightly ajar to the outside world. Just inches away, there are so many interesting things you could look at,” says Aric.

Use apps with caution

As well as Android and Apple’s in-built features, there’s also apps galore for managing screen time. However, Aric recommends this option for adults only.

“For children, I’d have greater reservations about using apps to manage screen time. It’s reinforcing the message that screens control everything. But for some adults, it may be that it’s necessary initially.”

Anti-social media apps like Offtime, Flipd and Moment are all highly-rated options that let you block apps at certain times.

For laptops and computers, you can try SelfControl. Qustodio, a free parental control software, also lets you manage and stop your child’s internet access, while keeping yours on.

Role modelling matters

As Aric highlights, your screen time doesn’t take place in a vacuum. For parents, being a role model is vital when it comes to limiting your family’s screen time.

“In almost every area I deal with, the elephant in the room increasingly is parental role modelling. If parents are always looking at their phone, their children are likely to do the same,” he says.

Try exercise as an alternative

Yes, really! Several recent studies suggest exercise is effective in treating smartphone and internet addiction.

Although the reasons why aren’t fully known yet, Aric suggests it may be that the neurochemicals produced by exercised (endorphins and dopamine) are similar to those linked to addiction, meaning they potentially inoculate us against getting such a ‘buzz’ from our screens.

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Words: Tilly Alexander