How much screen time is too much – for children and adults?

We're literally left to our own devices in self-isolation – and simply switching off screens isn't an option

Has your iPhone been rude enough to inform you that your screen time has doubled, tripled or gone up 76 per cent every Sunday since lockdown measures began?

Well before the pandemic began, there was debate over how much screen time is okay, and it’s an even more pressing issue now that we’re all left to our own literal devices in self-isolation.

But the debate typically focuses on children when, no matter what age, we’ve all developed attachment issues with our screens – whether that screen is a TV, computer, tablet or phone.

A 2018 study sponsored by contact lens brand Acuvue suggested the average office worker in America spends 1,700 hours in front of a computer screen in a single year. And that’s not including time spent staring at phones or other devices after work.

With schools closed, screens are required for students, those working from home and everyone attempting to stay connected with friends and family. Our increased reliance on screens makes it difficult to determine how much is too much.

Parents who work and provide childcare may not have the time to curate the content their children are taking in, or have the energy to provide activities to keep them away from the television.

“We’re being forced to notice the ubiquity of the screen,” says York University education professor Kate Tilleczek. “That makes this a great moment to reset and think about new questions that we need to be asking that go way past screen time. How are we going to take back balance in our life? Is staring at Netflix seven nights a week serving you?”

We’re all familiar with that time of the night when we find ourselves scrolling through our social media feeds for no apparent reason as hours fly by. That’s why it’s important to assess the content you’re looking at and why: is it providing entertainment in a positive sense? Is it educational or useful for work? Are you staying informed? Staying informed can also create a sense of anxiety depending on the news that day.

According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, infants and toddlers under two should not be exposed to screens at all, and children up to five should experience less than an hour a day. But for school-aged children, teens, and adults, there are no specified time limits.

“I think young people know,” says Tilleczek. “They get when they feel addicted, and when they’re starting to feel depressed.

“The real question is, how can we start to have that conversation more amongst our friends and families, and then how can we put strategies into place? The pull of technology is so strong to the point that it’s all we’re doing now. We have to consider the quality of the content we’re consuming, the tools and platforms we’re using. We need to find ways to monitor ourselves and ask, ‘When is the last time I put my screen down and did something physical? Am I feeling extra anxious or depressed?’”

A warning sign is when screens begin to interfere with life – for example, when staring at your phone results in avoiding homework or work tasks, a social disconnection, less sleep and a lack of routine.

“Becoming highly reactive and oppositional if screens are removed are also likely signs of unhealthy screen use,” says Doron Almagor, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, and the director of Ontario’s Possibilities Clinic. “Some people are at higher risk for falling into the ‘too much’ zone.”

For example, children, teens and adults with attention deficit disorders like ADD and ADHD have a higher risk of becoming addicted to screens, he adds.

“Treatments for ADD/ADHD can help to reduce an over-reliance on screens and online gaming,” says Almagor. “So getting assessed to see if ADD/ADHD is in the mix is an important step if there are concerns. We see lots of children, teens and adults at Possibilities who need specialized treatments when their gaming or screen use become too much.”

Treatments can involve individual and family counselling – which is available virtually – and, in some cases, medication.

There can also be physical warning signs. According to the Academy of American Ophthalmology, increased screen time can lead to eye strain, dry eyes, headaches and insomnia.

Instead of shelling out for computer glasses that claim to filter out blue light – which haven’t proven to be significantly effective – these simple tips can often be solution enough: keep your monitor at arm’s length and positioned so that your eyes gaze slightly downward reduce glare adjust lighting so that your screen isn’t brighter than the surrounding light take breaks keep your eyes moist, whether that means using a humidifier or eye drops and don’t use devices before bed, as there is evidence suggesting blue light can affect the body’s circadian rhythm by offering too much stimulation.

For parents who wonder how to set boundaries with children, openly discussing what everyone is feeling is the most helpful.

“In this new reality, parents are going to have to do some trial and error to figure out what is ‘just right’ for everyone,” says Almagor. “It’s important to remember that screen time is not all bad – there is such a thing as ‘too little.’ Research shows that individuals who are anxious or depressed can become more so if they don’t stay socially connected. And right now, digital connectivity is all we’ve got.”

Setting schedules that the entire family is aware of is important so that kids know what they have to look forward to each day and won’t feel a sense of disappointment, while randomly taking away these devices in order to establish a power dynamic will only prove ineffective. And try to create a sense of togetherness, with board games and charades, for example, to prove to your children they don’t need a screen to have fun.

For those without children, set aside time for mindfulness: unplug, focus on your breathing and be still. Your body will thank you.


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