Screen time

Living in the digital age we are surrounded by screens constantly, it’s now second nature and habitual to browse Netflix while simultaneously scrolling through Instagram. As a result of the advancement in smartphones and other mobile devices, it’s never been easier to lose yourself in a screen time; entertainment, connectivity, work, and even wellbeing can be accessed through a display at our fingertips. 

But with a growing dependency on our devices, is excessive screen time impacting us long-term, and if so how can we avoid or reduce screen time in a healthy and sustainable way?

Table of contents

Digital dependency 

First though, what even is screen time?

Often when we hear the phrase ‘screen time’ we think about our smartphones, and the well-intentioned efforts we make to reduce the time we spend on social media so we can switch off, focus, or be more productive. But it’s not necessarily that easy…

What do we mean by screen time?

Screen time can be defined as:

The amount of time someone spends looking at an electronic device with a screen, such as a computer or television”. 

As such most things in our day to day digital lives will involve some form of screen time. For those with access to a TV, smartphone, and computer, many aspects of work, social life, and daily life can and will increase the amount of time spent looking at a screen. 

Daily screen time activities:

  • Checking and responding to emails
  • Computer-based work 
  • Sourcing information e.g. via search engine, news site, weather sites
  • Video chatting with friends and family
  • Social media
  • Online shopping
  • Reading articles and news online
  • Watching television and streaming services
  • Taking notes/reminders/lists on a mobile device
  • Exercising with guided fitness videos
  • Using a smart watch/digital watch/wellness tracker
  • Reading an ebook

With so many common daily activities revolving around a screen it’s hard to take note of exactly how much exposure we are having to them. In addition a lot of screen time is unavoidable – many of us will spend at least eight hours a day looking at a computer screen just for work. It’s perhaps precisely this way of living though that has led us to develop some interesting, and sometimes unhealthy screen habits. 

Screen time habits: the facts

Find out what we use our devices for, which age group has the highest screen time, where we use our devices the most, and more about UK screen time habits…

Statistics from a 2019 UK survey carried out by Code Computerlove based on mobile device usage.

Screen time statistics

Screen time statistics
  • Based on the age range of 16-55+, we all spend at least two hours a day on our phones, with 16-24 year olds spending the most time (3.96 hrs), followed by 35-44 years olds (3.58 hrs).
  • The no.1 thing we use our phones for is messaging friends/family. Browsing social media and reading the news come in second and third, respectively. Interestingly a small percentage of people also use their phone for wellbeing, including activities such as sleep improvement and meditation.
  • A whopping 64% of people use their phones when watching TV – a popular habit that seriously increases screen time. 55% use their phones in bed and over ⅓ of us even take them to the loo! 
  • Screen time can make it hard to unwind: 23% of people agree they find it hard to relax with their phone. 25-34 year olds find this particularly hard with 31% agreeing somewhat, while nearly 14% strongly agreed. 
  • Nearly ⅓ of us have attempted a digital detox, with younger age groups attempting a detox the most, and with positive results – 87% of people said a digital detox made them feel better. 
  • Will digital technology make us happier? For the majority of people it’s neither here nor there, however 20% think it will make us somewhat less happy and 18% think it will make us more happy.

Impact of Covid-19 on screen time

Our relationship to screens is clearly shaped and impacted by our lifestyle (job, hobbies, etc.), so it’s no surprise that with a global pandemic significantly impacting life as we know it, our screen habits have been affected too. 

A recent blog post on Elite Content Marketer refers to a study that found electronic device usage has doubled amongst US children aged 0-17 since the start of the pandemic. 

With the pandemic requiring us all to stay at home and stay connected via video chat and social media, screen time has also considerably increased. Another study found the average screen time has increased from 3.5 hours to 5.1 hours for adolescents and young adults.

Should you worry about screen time?

We spend more and more time looking at screens each year, with new devices and apps that become essential parts of our daily routine. While we may find it enjoyable, and sometimes beneficial, to engage in screen-related activities, it’s prudent to be aware that there are also some negative effects of screen time.

Physical health

As an often sedentary activity, when we spend more time looking at screens we are much less active. Too much of this, whether it be watching TV, playing games, or getting stuck in a scroll hole, can put us at higher risk of obesity and impact heart health. Similarly sitting for too long in front of a screen, or poor posture as a result of looking down at a phone for prolonged periods can lead to back, neck, and shoulder pain. 

Exposure to screen time before bed can interfere with the brain’s sleep cycle as a result of the light emitted from the screen. This may result in poor sleep, which can subsequently impact brain function and mood.

Mental health

Besides the impact that poor physical health can have on our general wellbeing, experts have suggested that there is a link between increased screen time and depression. Similarly it has been found thatScreen-based entertainment increases central nervous system arousal, which can amplify anxiety.

In addition, over-exposure to social media can lead to feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction due to those inevitable comparisons we make – of our individual circumstances, versus a stream of often curated and aspirational social media profiles. 

Long-term implications

It’s possible that how much time we spend looking at a screen can have real implications for us in the long-term, particularly in relation to children and their development. It is suggested that Millennials are actually more forgetful than older generations due to less of a need to store information as it can be easily sourced online. Furthermore, language and thinking aptitude can be impacted in children, even with just a few hours a day of screen time.

The amount of time we spend attached to our phones might even have implications in human evolution. Studies conducted have highlighted a physical adaptation, particularly amongst young people, as a result of holding a mobile device. This has resulted in a “generational change in the use of the thumb”, and these changes “could influence the future evolution of thumbs and or hands”. We are talking very long-term in this instance though!

Are there any benefits?

Although high levels of screen time definitely have some very real and potentially worrying implications that should be considered, thankfully it’s actually not all bad. 

Better connected

Mobile devices and computers give us the ability to connect on a much more accessible level. Whether it’s social media updates, video calls, messages, or emails, screen time helps us to stay closer to friends and family. Particularly in light of Covid-19, having the ability to stay connected with loved ones has helped many to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation

Learning and development 

Screen time for students

Using computers, phones and even TV for learning and development can also be greatly beneficial. Screen-based activities can promote everything from teamwork and creativity, to hand-eye coordination. Engaging educational media can also help children to develop their knowledge and understanding, and has been “shown to help improve behaviour, literacy, and cognitive skills”. 

Screen time recommendations

As with most things, screen time is all about moderation. Realistically you’re not going to be able to cut it out altogether and even if you’re trying to reduce it, you’re still looking at a screen right now trying to find out how!

So before we all get square eyes, here are some sustainable ways you can begin to manage your screen time…

Find a healthy screen time balance

Screen time balance

It’s all about balance.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of definitive research and data on the topic, and the fact that our screens and digital technologies are evolving so quickly, it’s hard to pin down an exact recommendation for how much time we should be spending looking at our screens. With that said there are few things we can do to help us find a good balance. 

Adults

For adults it’s important to maintain a balance between an active and healthy lifestyle, and the necessary amount of screen time that is required to complete work and other responsibilities. With no set recommended screen time for adults, there are a few things that are important to remember:

  • take regular screen breaks
  • stay active to counteract sedentary screen time
  • avoid the use of screens before bed

Children

For children up to the age of five there are some recommendations for average screen time – generally restricted or none up to two years, and up to one hour a day for two to five year olds. However the focus in children is definitely more on what they are looking at on screen rather than how much. Recommendations include:

  • limiting screen time to educational programming 
  • introducing parental controls 
  • supervising screen time activities
  • engaging with interactive activities
  • avoiding screens at meal times and at bedtime

Time management

Manage screen time

Managing your time more generally can help you to control those urges to pick up your device as a distraction, and limit screen time to certain tasks and activities. 

Dedicating set times throughout the day to refresh social media and emails can give you a structured way of satisfying your screen craving, while limiting the total amount of time you spend on those activities. Knowing your work schedule and planning ahead also enables you to take regular breaks away from your screen – whether that’s to get outside, stretch, or just chill out for five minutes.

Manage your time for:

  • Increased focus
  • Better work/life balance
  • Fewer distractions/easier to manage distractions
  • Reduced feelings of stress and anxiety

Have a read of our recent time management blog to learn more and try these 6 tips to help you manage your time every day. 

The power of nature

Screen time alternative

Spending time in nature has been proven to positively impact mental health, and can be a powerful way to combat an overload of screen time. 

Taking time out of your day to go outdoors automatically changes your environment and, although it’s not always possible or safe to leave your phone behind, it’s an easy way to shift your focus away from your screen. Mind mental health charity encourages green spaces and natural environments to help with anxiety and depression, as well as disorders such as SAD.

Getting outdoors also automatically gets us moving with activities like walking, gardening, and cycling, all of which are great ways of improving physical health too. 

Screen time summed up

In short, we know that too much time spent watching television, scrolling social media, and staring into screen-space is counterintuitive to our wellbeing. However, we live in a world where to be a functioning member of society is to look at a screen. 

But with clear indications that there is a definite effect on our mental and physical health, a mindful approach to screen time is definitely a positive step forward. It’s not a question of how to avoid screen time, but learning how to live with it. 

What does mindful screen time look like for you?

Amie McKenzie

Amie is a freelance copywriter with experience creating a variety of content across multiple channels.

Published on 9 July 2021