How Much Screen Time Is Too Much?
Experts say that the answer depends on other lifestyle factors.
Today, most of our lives are spent online. From social media to streaming entertainment, we have plenty of ways to get drawn into the digital world. One study found that adults spend over 11 hours a day staring at screens. Television is still a major part of our screen time, according to the study, with over four hours a day spent watching entertainment. Teenagers spend about 6.5 hours or more looking at screens, while tweens spend more than 4.5 hours a day, according to a 2015 survey from Common Sense Media. That begs the question: How much screen time is too much?
"When we refer to screen time, we usually mean non-work or non-school screen time," says Justin J. Schleifer, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Bradley Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. "Screen time that is not spent for learning or working should be limited mainly because of the implication of what you are losing out on."
Why You Should Limit Screen Time at Any Age
Growing research seems to suggest that exposing young children to too much time in front of a TV or computer can have negative effects on their brain development, including issues with memory, attention, and language skills. Staring at screens can also cause headaches for some people, Dr. Schleifer says, but the main issue is that spending time looking at a screen means that we aren't doing something else.
"Children who spend most of their time on a screen is more of a concern [than when adults do the same]," says Dr. Schleifer. "With children, there is a lot of development that they could miss out on as a result. Children who watch a lot of television could struggle with their language development or with reading social cues at school." The reason for this is that young children (especially children with developmental issues) learn how to talk and interact with people best when engaging with people. Educational shows are fine as a supplement, but not as the main source of a child's development. For children and adults, too much recreational screen time means that they aren't getting enough physical activity or social interaction, which in turn presents its own set of health problems over time.
The Guidelines for Screen Time
Most of the recommended guidelines for screen time come from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Schleifer says that babies under 18 months old should not be on screens at all. "The only exception is when babies interact with their parents or relatives for FaceTime or something like that," he explains. Older babies can spend a few minutes of educational screen time daily, while toddlers and young children should spend no more than one hour a day watching quality educational programming.
As for adults, there is no hard and fast rule. Julie Gurner, Psy.D. and executive coach, says that limiting screen time for adults depends on a few factors. "Adults should limit recreational screen time if they notice impacts on their physical health, relationships, productivity, or any emotional changes," Dr. Gurner says. "While using a screen is almost unavoidable in today's professional world, it should be only one of many options you use during your downtime for recreation." Adults have to make an effort to schedule time away from their computers and their smartphones. Whether that means we take a walk with our dogs or hosting an outdoor dinner party with friends, the important thing is to take a break from screen media for a few hours and live in the moment. Too much screen time has also been found to lead to higher rates of depression and ADHD among adolescents and well into adulthood. According to Dr. Schleifer, this is because using screens are generally not great for promoting happiness. Humans need interaction with other people and the world around them, and we also need physical activity and social experiences to find our happiness.
"While there aren't recommended limits on screen time for adults, what is most predictive of children's use of screens is how their parents are doing," says Dr. Schleifer. "Parents who tell their kids to only have an hour of screen time but then the kids see them spending more time than that with screens might see their kids struggle to follow that rule." Children model their behavior after the adults in their lives; so if we want to limit our kids' screen time, then we have to limit our own (at least in front of them).