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What are the Health Risks of Too Much Screen Time?

screen-timeEver since the advent of television in the early 20th century, parents have been trying to pull their children away from the screen. There may not have been any medical evidence to back it up, but people intuitively knew it couldn’t be healthy to stare at those flickering images for hours and hours, day after day, week after week.

They were right. Watching too much TV is definitely unhealthy.

But they couldn’t have imagined how serious this problem would become as the decades flew by and the information age approached. Today we have unlimited amounts of data, imagery, and video on sleek handheld devices. Our computers are thinner and sharper. Our televisions are bigger than ever, with ultra-high-definition pictures to give us an ever-increasing amount of detail. Screens are all around us, a part of our daily lives.

It’s not just a matter of entertainment, either. Most people spend hours every day looking at screens for work. Schools are using screens and devices more and more as educational software continues to evolve.

The result? Americans—like the rest of the world—are putting in a huge amount of screen time. According to a recent article on CNN, the average American spends around ten hours per day looking at some sort of screen. That’s an awful lot, and here’s why it’s a problem.

Physical effects of too much screen time:

  • Eye-related problems (including eye fatigue and dryness, dry corneas, increased blurriness and gradual loss of vision)
  • Shoulder and neck strain that can develop into chronic problems
  • Difficulty falling asleep (interference with circadian rhythms)
  • Weight gain and other physical problems associated with inadequate physical activity

Psychological effects of too much screen time:

  • Attention problems such as ADHD
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Irritability

When we turn the spotlight in children, the list of problems grows even longer. Children today are raised around a variety of electronic devices, and it’s easier for them to become dependent.

  • Emotional and behavioral issues
  • Inability to connect socially
  • Neurological imbalances
  • Physical problems such as weight gain and susceptibility to diabetes

What can we do about it?

As parents, it’s particularly important to look at how much time our children are spending each day with phones, tablets, laptops and television screens. Current guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics state that children under two years old should have no screen time at all, while children over two years should be limited to 1 or 2 hours per day. As screen time increases, it’s important to gauge the quality as well as the quantity. “Passive” screen time—watching movies, for example—is more detrimental to a child’s health than “active” screen time which involves puzzles, problem solving, music and/or interactive storytelling.

Adults who want to maintain optimum health should also carefully consider their own screen time. If you work in a job that requires constant computer work, eye doctors recommend following the 20-20-20 rule. Every twenty minutes, focus your eyes on an object at least 20 feet away, and hold your gaze there for at least 20 seconds. This allows your eyes muscles to relax and reset.

Periodic stretching and light exercise is also recommended throughout the day. This will help resolve some of the pent-up stress and strain in the shoulders and neck. Greater attention to ergonomics and posture is also very useful. When the work day is finished, try and focus on other activities that do not involve screens. Hiking, running, cycling, playing sports, or simply relaxing with all of your devices turned off can work wonders.

A more intelligent approach to screens

The chronic over-use of screens is problematic to health, and it leads (whether directly or indirectly) to millions of urgent care visits every year. By educating ourselves and our loved ones about the detrimental effects of too much screen time, we can develop healthier habits when it comes to using our digital devices.

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