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Can You Offset the Negative Effects of Screen Time?

Man scrolling on phone.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study tied longer daily screen use to higher measures of poor health.
  • People who used TVs and smartphones the most had the least healthy dietary patterns compared to those on TV-connected devices, laptops, and tablets. 
  • There are steps you can take to reducing your screen time, like unplugging before bed and incorporating activities into your day that aren't reliant on technology.

All that time on Zoom may actually be making you less healthy. According to a new study, people with the highest screen time aren’t exactly living their best life.

A report in BMC Public Health found that people who used screens an average of 17.5 hours per day had the least healthy dietary patterns and the poorest health-related traits. This is compared to those with light or moderate screen use (7 and 11.25 hours of screen time per day, respectively.)

Christopher Wharton, PhD, assistant dean of innovation and strategic initiatives at Arizona State University's College of Health Solutions, and his coauthors evaluated surveys from more than 900 Americans who owned a TV and at least one other device with a screen. Participants answered questions about their diets, sleep, perceived stress, exercise, and body mass index.

People who reported heavy usage of TVs and smartphones had the least healthy dietary patterns compared to those who used TV-connected devices, laptops, and tablets. Those who heavily used smartphones reported the lowest sleep quality— something that surprised Wharton.

“One finding I was surprised by was that heavy use of smartphones, but not TVs, was associated with decreased sleep quality,” he tells Verywell. He thinks this may be because people spend the last few minutes or hours before bed on their smartphones.

“It’s possible this behavior is becoming more prominent than TV-watching before bedtime,” Wharton says.

He offers suggestions for thinking critically about your screen time, as well as adopting healthy behaviors to offset it.

What This Means For You

Incorporating more non-screen activities into your day may help balance out increased screen time due to the pandemic. Finding time to unplug may possibly improve your health and overall habits.

Separate Necessary From Unnecessary Screen Time

If you’re already looking at a screen a lot for work, it’s probably not the best time to indulge in a Netflix marathon. Wharton’s study found it was linked to less healthy dietary patterns, including regular fast food consumption, eating meals in front of the TV, and perceived stress.

To Wharton, screen time comes in two flavors these days: that which is requisite and that which is voluntary.

“Many of us require screens to do our jobs, and in the COVID era, screens to attend to school," he says. Data also shows, however, that people spend a lot of their leisure time in front of screens.

“For that voluntary screen time, we ought to step back and think: Is this use of time really meeting my needs? Is it in line with my values? Does it help me accomplish what I want?” he asks. “I’m of course biased on the topic, but I’d say often the answer to these questions is no.”

Create a Screen-Free Space

Wharton advises that people redesign their living spaces so they don’t center around screens. For many families, the TV is the central item in any family room, with all furniture organized around it. Most families have multiple TVs as well, often in multiple rooms.

Consider moving a TV out of one room or to another space. “Certainly get it out of the bedroom,” Wharton says.

“One of the simplest things people can do for their health when it comes to screens—which is probably one of the hardest things to do because of the convenience and their addictive nature—is putting all those devices down, in particular your smartphone, two hours before bedtime," Wharton says. 

Can You Offset Screen Time?

Is it possible to do a whole bunch of “healthy” activities to offset the hours you spend glued to the screen? There’s not much evidence on that. (But hey, we can try!)

Previous research looking at the impact of interventions to reduce screen time seemed to show some good results in improving certain health outcomes, such as BMI. We also know that screen time, outside of sleep, is one of the most important drivers of sedentary behavior, which is well-established as a risk factor for ill-health outcomes, Wharton says.

“I would like to people to give themselves the opportunity to assess how they use their screens. Some use is necessary, some use is not but still great fun,” he says. “Some is probably on the excessive side that could lead to health issues.”

Christopher Ferguson, PhD, a professor of psychology at Stetson University specializing in media effects, said the data in the study is “crude” and doesn't control well for other variables.

“There may be some tiny correlations between some screens and some outcomes, but I suspect they're likely explained by other things going on in the individual's environment,” he tells Verywell.  

He says it may be better to use media diaries instead of questionnaires as Wharton did, but they require much more of a time investment for researchers and participants. That’s why they aren’t used often.

“The few studies we have on media use diaries suggest little effect or at least nuanced relationships between screens and wellbeing,” Ferguson said.

He doesn’t believe we are at a point where we can say there are effects of screen time, let alone do anything to compensate for it.

“Naturally, everything is good in balance,” Ferguson says, adding adults should get enough sleep and exercise. “Things like blue light glasses aren't necessary."

What to Do Sans Screen

Regardless of whether we can or can’t counteract the impacts of too much screen time, we can do things other than stare at our screens—and many of them are quite good for us.

  1. Exercise: This may not lessen the effects of screen time if you're watching TV on the treadmill, but it can help reduce your sedentary digital time.
  2. Enjoy a hobby: This can’t include video games if you’re trying to reduce screen time.
  3. Eat well: Healthy eating is often connected to time spent planning and preparing meals, Wharton says, helping to detract from screen time.
  4. Sleep: Many of us don’t get enough of it, so putting the phone down before bed may make sure you start getting the recommended amount.
  5. Go outside: A 2020 study found that time outside can be helpful for children's mental health if they spend extended amounts of time on the screen.

In order to make a plan for how you'll disconnect from screens for the day, Wharton advises you create some rules about what time you (and maybe your spouse or family) put away devices.

During the pandemic, Wharton says he hopes people will give themselves the chance to think about how they’d like to use their time at home outside of just taking in more screen time.

“It might be just the right time to revisit an old hobby, or start a new one, or start taking daily walks, or trying new recipes,” he says. “All of these would be great alternatives to, say, just binge-watching the next season of a show.”

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Article Sources
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  1. Maricarmen V, et al. From TVs to tablets: the relation between device-specific screen time and health-related behaviors and characteristicsBMC Public Health. 2020. doi:10.1186/s12889-020-09410-0

  2. Oswald T, et al. Impacts of “screen time” and “green time” for children and adolescents: A systematic scoping review. PLOS ONE. Sept. 4, 2020. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0237725