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When Does Too Much Screen Time Cause Harm?

It's difficult to know how much screen time is too much, but we should have some reasonable limits in mind.

Too Much Screen Time?

We are all on are screens quite a bit these days. We know from our first-hand experiences that it’s not just the kids! This raises the questions: When does too much screen time cause harm? Just how much is too much? Where do we draw the line? Or do we need to even bother? Are the concerns about screen time just another “moral panic” and much ado about nothing?

Just How Much Time Are We Spending With Our Screens?

According to the market-research group Nielsen, adults are spending over 11 hours per day interacting with media. That’s up from 9 hours and 32 minutes from four years ago. Of that 11 hours, 4 hours and 46 minutes are spent watching TV. According to an oft-cited 2016 report by Common Sense Media, teens spend an average of 9 hours per day interacting with media, not including time spent for school or homework. For kids ages 8-12, the same Common Sense media survey report found they were spending 6 hours per day interacting with media. Kids ages 2-5 spend around 32 hours per week in front of a screen (e.g., watching TV, videos, gaming).

Limitations of the Research

It’s clear that a lot of time is being spent with screens, yet there are problems with even gathering these data. Most researchers rely on self-reports, which are notoriously unreliable. Just as people have trouble remembering what and how much they ate for lunch yesterday, estimating media consumption across multiple formats and devices is extremely difficult.

Moreover, in some research, the time spent on media is double counted (or even triple counted), as it is in the Common Sense Media report. That is, if a teen has the TV on while he or she has a smartphone in hand, the screen time is counted twice. While the teen might spend 2 clock hours watching a movie, 4 hours of media time are counted because he or she was interacting periodically with a smartphone while the movie was playing. This can lead to a deceptively high number of total hours spent per day interacting with media.

What’s the Metric?

Another important limitation of the research involves well- or ill-being. How would we even know if too much time is spent on the screen? What would that look like? There would have to be negative effects in some form or another. But we would have to agree upon the metric for well-being. Are we measuring depression, anxiety, stress, happiness, sleep quality/quantity, grades, or satisfaction with friends? Depending upon what metric one is using for positive or negative outcomes, we would find different answers for how much screen time is too much.  

The Many Variables Involved

Experts are never going to be able to be able to provide a definitive answer for how much screen time is too much. Simply put, life and people are extremely complicated. There are so many variables involved that, at best, we can only say, “It depends on ______.” Let’s take a look at some of these variables that might influence how our screens affect us:

  • Characteristics of the person – e.g., age of the person, sex, personality variables
  • Characteristics of the context – e.g., playing a video game alone vs. online with strangers vs. in-person with friends
  • Format of the media – e.g., tablet, Xbox, smartphone, VR headset
  • Type of media – e.g., social media, video games, Netflix, blogs, YouTube tutorials
  • Characteristics of the media – e.g., violent movies and video games, pornography, sexting, high action vs. low action, strategy vs. action
  • Consuming vs. creating – e.g., watching YouTube videos of people being slimed vs. how to play chess, playing a video game vs. programming/developing a video game
  • Time/frequency involved – e.g., 2 hours per day vs. 10 hours per day, checking a phone 30 times per day vs. 200 times per day
  • Timing – e.g., Snapchatting at home while sitting on the couch or while driving down the freeway at 70 m.p.h., a college student texting friends between classes or during class lectures

You can see where “it depends” is the best answer when it comes to how much screen time is too much. How much is too much pornography for a young child to watch? How much Snapchatting is too much if a teen is driving on the freeway? For such scenarios, anything above zero is too much! How about an adult who is writing a book (or blog!) or developing an app to help make it easier for people to donate to charities? Well, that’s much more difficult to answer. Assuming that person is still meeting basic needs (e.g., sleep, exercise, movement, in-person social interactions), perhaps he or she could spend up to 10-12 hours per day engaged in such screen time and experience positive effects without any noteworthy ill-effects.

What Happens When the Amount of Screen Time Crosses the Line?

Most typical screen use would be categorized as beneficial or at least benign. Still, just as we can eat too much of a healthy food, we can have so much screen time that the cons start to outweigh the pros. From this perspective, too much screen time is not “death by a 1000 cuts” because a cut is inherently negative. Perhaps too much screen time is more like death by a 1000…walnuts. Walnuts are a healthy food choice, but eating a 1000 would be 26,000 calories and 3000 grams of fat. I’m not sure what the health consequences would be, but they definitely wouldn’t be pretty! Even so, there’s not some magical line that a person crosses in which he or she experiences a steep drop-off in well-being. It would likely be a gradual shift such that the cons start to outweigh the pros on certain health metrics.

A case can be made that the typical screen time is a bit much and can slowly and quietly leech away some of our well-being and productivity. Thus, just as the average calories consumed per day by Americans (3600, up 24% since 1961) is not healthy, our average daily screen use might be a bit unhealthy for us. We have a tremendously difficult time setting reasonable limits because, as with unhealthy foods, they are so compelling.

Technology companies use persuasive design to get and keep our eyes on the screens. Like companies peddling unhealthy food products, tech companies will use every trick they can to get our attention because that’s how they make money. Thus, we end up on our screens a bit too much (and/or check them too frequently) to the detriment of our overall well-being. Still, there is some controversy about this, and the negative effects from typical overuse may be subtle and mild.

When Do Negative Effects from Typical Screen Use Kick In?

The negative effects would start to outweigh the positives when they interfere too much with our basic needs. Thus, even if a teen is learning to program, if she is only getting 4 hours of sleep per night because of that, then she will suffer. Chronic sleep deprivation contributes to significant problems in physical and psychological well-being. Our need for sleep hasn’t changed in thousands of years, but we are getting less of it.

Harmful vs. Not Ideal?

An important distinction should be made between harmful and not ideal (or not optimal). It’s possible that Johnny is playing video games (and watching Netflix, snapchatting) more than is ideal for his optimal development without it meaning that is actually harmful to him.

From this perspective, there is an opportunity cost to spending too much time on screens versus an inherent harm. One might argue that too much screen time occurs when a person misses out on other opportunities to gain greater benefits from off-screen activities. For instance, no matter how many benefits Johnny gains from playing Minecraft with his friends, at some point, he (and his friends) would receive different and/or greater benefits from playing hide-and-seek outside or building an actual fort with their hands.

Still, we must admit that we can probably think of time misspent during our youth watching mindless TV or playing video games when we could have been learning to play guitar, program, paint, speak a foreign language, or spend more time with friends and family. Yet, this doesn’t necessarily mean that our screen time caused us measurable harm in our lives. In truth though, does anyone really optimize their entire lives…without that itself causing harm?

So, How Much Is Too Much Screen Time?

With a huge qualifier of “it depends,” when it comes to recreational screen time for kids and teens, I would say 1-2 hours of recreational screen time on school days is a reasonable amount. On weekends and holidays, perhaps 3-4 hours of recreational screen time is a reasonable amount. These are more like guidelines than limits, and there would be many exceptions. Still, it is helpful to have some general guidelines in mind.

For teens, parents will need to back off on trying to enforce too many limits. It’s very difficult to police teens’ screen time and it can often backfire. At this point, we might just ensure that they have screens out their rooms by a certain time of night, especially school nights, so they are getting enough sleep. Also, we might still enforce family smartphone usage policies such as barring phones during meals. Of course, we need to model a balanced use of screens ourselves. One can’t expect kids to use their screens mindfully when we are not.

We need to pick our battles as parents. If our kids are doing fairly well in school, have friends they spend time with in person, get enough sleep, have hobbies off-screen, are physically active, and seem happy, we need to be careful not to obsess about their screen time. Sure, they might be on their screens more than we’d like but micromanaging their lives might cause more problems than the screens. Teens in particular need their space and are likely to resist attempts to control their lives – even when we think it’s “for their own good.”

For the holidays and special occasions, it’s okay to binge some on screens. We sure do so with food! As with food though, we don’t want to make binging a daily habit. Remember that there are so many other wonderful activities to do with our families that don’t involve screens. We aren’t making a sacrifice by limiting our screen time when we engage in these other enjoyable, need-satisfying activities. Is anyone up for a hike or board game?

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