By Whitney Jones, MSW, LCSW
We live in a world where it is nearly impossible to avoid looking at screens – computers, smartphones, tablets, etc… We depend on them for a lot of things including travel, work, catching up with loved ones, and typing up this article, for example. Concern is often focused on the physical aspects of prolonged screen exposure, such as its impact on our vision, posture, lack of movement, and sleep. While these areas are very important, it seems that the effect of screen-time on emotional wellbeing is often overlooked.
That’s unfortunate, considering Americans spend on average 11 hours per day watching, reading, listening to or interacting with media, according to market-research group Nielsen. Nielsen also reports that number has risen from 9 hours and 32 minutes just four years ago.
Should adults be worried about the amount of time they spend in front of a screen? If we look at the potential impact prolonged screen-time can have on our wellbeing, I think it is worth considering.
Concerns associated with prolonged screen-time
Negative impact on brain function
Neuroimaging research has shown that too much screen-time in some people can affect the brain’s structure, impacting areas of the brain that govern a person’s ability to plan, prioritize, organize, and complete routine and easy tasks.
In addition, apps, games and social platforms often trigger the release of dopamine, the body’s natural “feel-good hormone.” If you feel a little boost in your mood when your post is shared or a picture is liked, that’s the dopamine effect. There is concern that developers are using sophisticated algorithms to manipulate the dopamine effect in an effort to keep users engaged as long as possible.
Whether it’s someone’s beautifully decorated home or their trip to Bermuda or their perfectly selected outfit for an event that you were not invited to, many of us have had feelings of missing out, inadequacy, and even jealously over what is portrayed on the screen. This can lower self-confidence in some people or cause them to create unreasonable expectations for themselves.
A number of studies have found correlations between higher social media use and poorer emotional health, including depression, anxiety, feelings of loneliness and isolation, lower self-esteem, and even suicidality. In one study, 62% of those interviewed felt inadequate after comparing other users’ posts with their own personal achievements.
Decreased social interactions
Excessive technology use can have a negative impact on our social wellbeing. When adults are buried deep into their phones, they are not interacting with those around them.
Despite our frequent use of “social media” some worry that our society is becoming less social and having fewer in-person interactions. More personal connections may help reduce one’s level of stress and provide a greater sense of purpose.
Tips for cutting down screen-time
If you feel like the amount of time you are spending in front of a screen has become unhealthy, you might consider a screen diet. Here are three helpful tips to get started:
- Rethink your usage. Is there a certain game or social media platform that you spend entirely too much time on? Try moving those apps from the front page of your home screen. If these apps are a few pages back, you will be less likely to go directly to them. Still jumping to those apps? Delete them and only use them while on your computer, instead of while on your phone or tablet. You still have access to them, but you’ve set limits for yourself. Still finding yourself stuck in front of the screen? Set a timer or a time limit to devote to screen-time. This can help you take control and incorporate other things into your day.
- Clean out your media. It’s possible that some of the things you are viewing online are triggering negative responses. If that is the case, consider removing apps or unfollowing accounts that may be impacting your emotional health. For example, if posts from a famous supermodel strike at your own self-esteem, consider “unfollowing.” You can also add variety to your newsfeed by adding an account that sends daily affirmations.
- Make it a challenge. Get creative and have a screen-free challenge with your family, friends, or co-workers. Set rules like, “First one to check their phone during dinner has to clear the table” or “First one to post on social media during the work day makes the coffee run.” In addition to encouraging you, this activity involves others and increases those in-person connections.
Potential benefits associated with reducing screen-time
More time to pursue healthier activities
Less screen-time means more “anything” time. Whether it is reading, hiking, crafting, family time, friend time, or just an extra hour of sleep at night, all of these things can promote positive emotional health and wellbeing while also replacing screen-time.
Improved physical health
Excessive screen-time can impact how we feel physically. It can make us tired, give us headaches, and affect our weight and sleep. Reducing screen-time may not only help us feel better, but it can also give us more time to engage in healthier activities.
Like many things, screen-time is perfectly fine in moderation. It’s not necessary to go completely off-the-grid and delete your Netflix account. Balancing screen-time just means being mindful of the amount of time you are spending in front of a screen and intentionally incorporating other activities into your day.
In the U.S. the American Public Health Association is recognizing screen free week April 29, 2019 – May 5, 2019. During this week, communities are invited to unplug from digital entertainment and enjoy other types of activities.
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