The Top Three Health Consequences of Too Much Screen Time, And What You Can Do About It

Let’s face it, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed how we interact with screens – whether it be our computer screens, mobile phones, televisions, or tablets.

With the realities of remote work, virtual school, and in-person activities suspended indefinitely, adults and kids alike are staring at screens now more than ever. In fact, Nielsen suggests that media consumption has increased 60% due to COVID-19 and more time being spent at home. And, according to a recent survey, nearly half of American children spend more than six hours a day in front of a screen, up 500% when compared to before the pandemic.

With this exponential increase in screen time, our bodies and minds are trying to adapt. Has your sleep been off? Are your eyes hurting? Do you feel like you never get up from staring at your screen? You’re not alone. Screen time can wreak havoc on our mental and physical health. Here are the top three health consequences of screen time and what you can do to minimize the effects that you may be experiencing.

1) Sleep

Did you know excess screen time is taking away our sleep cues? Our bodies are used to being physically active during the day and seeing the sunshine, then slowing down over the course of the evening as it gets darker. Screen time late at night can interfere with circadian rhythms, which is your natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. The light emitted from your computer, tablet, television, or mobile phone is bright and can trick your brain into thinking it is the middle of the day (when in fact, it is time to go to bed).

What can you do to maintain good sleep practices?

To keep your circadian rhythms consistent, there are two good rules to follow: 1) routine, and 2) bed=sleep.

  • Keep your wake-up time consistent every day, even on the weekends.
  • Try to get some exercise during the daylight hours, at least four hours before you plan to go to bed. Walking meetings or calls are a great idea!
  • When it’s nighttime, keep your routine calming and consistent, and try to get in bed around the same time each night. Also try to avoid caffeine in the evening.
  • Avoid looking at screens of any type within an hour of going to bed.
  • Reserve your bed for sleep and sex. Do not read, study, or engage in any other “wakeful” activities in bed.

If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t seem to fall back asleep, do not be tempted to reach for your phone or turn on the TV. Instead, get out of bed and do something boring until you are sleepy and try again.

2) Strain

Screen time can take a toll on your muscles all over your body. Take your eye muscles, for example. They are not used to focusing on a computer screen all day. Our eyes are also not designed to stare in the same place all day long. Think about all of the different focal distances you have over the course of a normal day while you are driving, grabbing coffee, talking to coworkers and friends (socially distanced with your mask on!), and having dinner with your family. When you keep your focal point at the same place all the time, it can cause eye strain, which can contribute to a headache. The fact that we are often looking at bright screens in dark rooms can also make eye strain worse.

What can you do to combat eye strain?

The best advice is to take frequent breaks from the screen. Other ways to avoid eye strain, include:

  • Use the 20/20/20 rule: every twenty minutes, focus your eyes on a point in the room approximately 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.
  • Consider backlighting your computer screen so there is not a high contrast from a bright screen to a dark room.

Try blue light filter eyeglass lenses that block or filter out the blue light given off from screens, which is a high-energy light, like that of the midday sun. Blue light can trick your brain into thinking it is the middle of the day and can contribute to strain, dryness, or irritation.

The head, neck, upper back, and shoulders often carry a lot of the muscle tension in our bodies. The pandemic has been especially stressful, and it is likely these body parts have experienced additional strain simply due to stress. But our sitting posture while we use our desktop computers, laptops, and cell phones can also play a role in causing muscle strain, especially when we are in a hunched over posture.

What can you do to improve muscle strain?

  • Get up and move! Consider pairing neck, shoulder, and upper back stretches with something you do routinely, like checking emails or going to the bathroom.
  • Consider having alternatives to merely sitting at your desk, like a standing desk or taking walking calls or meetings.
  • If you are experiencing pain, there are over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers than can help, like acetaminophen or an oral or topical NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug). There are also other topical pain relievers that are available to soothe tired muscle aches and treat pain. Make sure to talk to your doctor about your symptoms before taking any medication.

3) Sedentary Behavior

Sedentary behavior means sitting for long periods of time throughout your day. Being sedentary for long periods of time has been associated with a variety of poor health outcomes, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. While many of us are sitting at our desks during the day, it is important to try to reduce sedentary behavior in your daily life, especially in your work routine.

How can you be more active?

Best advice? Stand up! Your thighs are powerful muscles and the mere act of standing can help get you out of a sedentary behavior rut:

  • Stand several times every hour and walk several times throughout the day.
  • Schedule reasons to get up and walk, whether it’s walking during a phone call, walking to get a coffee, or walking with someone in your social distancing pod. These breaks throughout the day will help you be more active, which also has benefits for your mental health.
  • Pair simple exercises, like planks or squats, with routine activities you do throughout the day, like checking emails or going to the bathroom.

With the increasing availability of COVID-19 vaccines, we are all hopeful that an end to the pandemic is in sight. But there are specific things you can do NOW to minimize the impact of too much screen time in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Self-care is critical, especially right now. With small, intentional changes, you can manage your screen time and set yourself up for restorative sleep, less muscle strain, and more activity sprinkled throughout your day.

Elizabeth K. Seng, Ph.D.

Meet Our Experts

Elizabeth K. Seng, Ph.D.

Dr. Elizabeth Seng is a clinical psychologist and head pain expert who specializes in the study and treatment of headache disorders, chronic pain, and other health problems influenced by stress. She specializes in modifying behaviors, thoughts, and lifestyle factors in an effort to improve management of headache disorders. Dr. Seng has been researching factors associated with migraine-related disability and migraine treatment for fifteen years.