Doesn't it feel like everything that could go digital has gone digital these days? It's almost impossible to stay away from our screens for any length of time, especially since the pandemic, when our entire lives shifted to online.

We now use our phones and laptops for everything: watching TV and films, keeping abreast of news, reading books, chatting with friends, playing games, shopping and remote working. Digital communication is now the norm – business messaging and meetings are frequently done online – even doctors' appointments are often conducted virtually.

Should we be concerned about screen time impacting our health? And what counts as excessive screen time? Read on for some thought-provoking screen time statistics and facts, plus tips on bringing balance back to your life if your screens are taking over.

What qualifies as screen time?

Screen time can be described as the number of hours per day you spend using electronic devices with a screen, such as phones, tablets, laptops, desktop computers, televisions and monitors.

How many hours of screen time is healthy (or too much)?

The answer to how much screen time is too much varies depending on your age. Generally speaking, the younger you are, the less screen time you should have.

Doctors and healthcare experts have differing opinions on the recommended screen time for children and young adults. For instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics advocates zero screen time for children under two years and a maximum of two hours per day for children over this age. Another group of experts from All About Vision propose the following screen times for different age groups:

Recommended screen time table

These guidelines are important to think about, but they're not set in stone. Which is just as well, because for adults, it's extremely difficult (if not impossible) to limit screen time as most jobs require the use of a computer or smartphone for work-related tasks.

What really matters is the kind of digital content you're consuming. Not all screen time is the same – for example, two hours spent on social media has far worse effects than watching a two-hour educational documentary on your phone. And a 17-year-old student taking a three-hour test online wouldn't be affected the same way as if they were playing a high-stress video game for that same duration.

Risks of long-term screen exposure for the average person

So, what can too much screen exposure do to your health? Well, there are several physical and psychological health risks to be aware of, some of which might surprise you...

Physical health risks

  • Sleep issues – blue light inhibits melatonin production, which can cause disrupted circadian rhythm, i.e. poor sleep quality and waking up during the night.

  • Obesity – studies have found a strong association between screen time and obesity. Being on devices for a prolonged amount of time can mean leading a sedentary lifestyle with limited physical activity. Research also shows heavy users of mobile and computer screens are more likely to indulge in mindless snacking and other unhealthy dietary habits.

  • Vision problems – excessive screen time can cause a range of conditions like eye strain (also called Computer Vision Syndrome), myopia (near-sightedness), blurred vision and headaches.

  • 'Tech Neck' – bending over your device stresses the neck and shoulder muscles, making them overly tired and sore, and even causing spasms. Looking down at just 45 degrees puts weight on your neck muscles equivalent to an almost 50-pound bag of potatoes!

Psychological health risks

  • Addictive behaviour – this develops gradually and can reach the point where you're unable to control the urge to check your phone or notifications every few minutes. Internet gaming addiction is now recognised as an actual disorder, with recommendations for further research in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR).

  • Reduced cognitive ability – according to a 2020 study, smartphone addiction is associated with a reduction in grey matter volume (the part of the brain involved in muscle control, memory retention and emotion regulation).

  • Behavioural issues – screened content like video games and films can trigger the release of feel-good dopamine – and when the screen time stops, so does the dopamine release. This can result in irritability, impulsive actions and poor decision-making – also affecting academic performance. Children especially can become desensitised to violence and get aggressive after viewing violence on TV.

  • Risk of depression – TV watching and computer use are associated with low energy expenditure and a sedentary lifestyle, the latter being a risk factor for depression. (More on this in statistic number eight below).

Ten fascinating screen time statistics and facts

Let's look now at average screen time trends around the world, including what type of digital content is consumed the most and how governments in some countries are starting to put restrictions in place to keep screen times at a healthy level.

  1. The global average screen time in 2023 is almost seven hours per day – and three and a half hours of that is mobile screen time.

  2. The era of traditional TV looks to be ending, as 95.1 million people in the US are expected to cancel their cable TV subscriptions in 2023. This figure is up from 87 million in 2022. Why? More and more people are in favour of streaming content online through platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and Disney Plus.

  3. The top three types of content being put out for daily consumption are online videos (over 50%), social media (almost 13%) and gaming (nearly 10%). Of these figures, more than 75% can be attributed to content on TikTok, YouTube, Facebook and video games.

  4. In 2022, South Africans had the highest screen time numbers of all regions, spending 58% of their total waking hours using a computer or smartphone. This equates to over ten hours online every day for the country's working-age internet users (social media scrolling on mobile phones being one of the top activities, with over three and a half hours daily on platforms such as Facebook and TikTok). Japanese users spend the least amount of time (less than 30% of their waking hours) in front of a screen, and also frequent social media much less than the average user in other countries.

  5. A recent ABCD study by JAMA Network, consisting of just over 5400 US participants, found that the COVID-19 pandemic did a real number on screen times for adolescents. Children aged 12 to 13 years were spending around 3.8 hours a day, pre-pandemic, in front of screens. However, after the pandemic, this number almost doubled to 7.7 hours a day and was predicted not to decrease after the pandemic restrictions were lifted.

  6. The pandemic greatly impacted adults' screen times too – jumping from almost 60% to 80% in various countries, according to this study.

  7. Regarding time spent on gaming, Saudi Arabia was the leading country in 2022, with players averaging almost two hours a day in-game. Thailand and India have the next biggest gaming populations.

  8. US adults, particularly females, with screen times of over four hours a day are at a much higher risk of depression. Another study published in 2018 found that limiting social media use to fewer than 30 minutes a day reduces feelings of loneliness and depression.

  9. Under Taiwan's 'Child and Youth Welfare and Protection Act', parents of children under 18 now have a legal obligation to monitor their kids' screen time – they can get fined if their children become physically or mentally ill due to staring at screens for too long. Similar measures apply in South Korea and China.

  10. The government of Kagawa, Japan, also takes screen time consumption seriously, passing an ordinance in 2020 that recommends a one-hour daily screen time limit to curb gaming addiction among young people.

Person gaming and looking at monitor

How to limit your average screen time for a balanced life

If you're worried you're indulging in too much screen time, and it's beginning to have health consequences, there are several things you can do to cut down.

First, see what your average screen time statistics are. Most smartphones have a settings option where you can check your digital balance and see how many times you open your phone and visit apps. Start with your most-used yet non-essential apps and put a daily limit on each of them. Social media apps are a good starting point as they're not essential unless you need to use them for work.

You should be able to disable specific apps once you reach a pre-set daily usage limit. This means you'll no longer be able to open those apps on your phone for the rest of the day, until the timer resets or you go back into your phone settings and change the limits manually.

If you're struggling to pull yourself away from your screen this way, try to gradually lower your daily limit until you reach an acceptable usage level. You could also:

  • Take regular breaks to detox – e.g. put your smartphone out of sight in a drawer or switch to a feature phone occasionally if you feel an urge to keep checking it.

  • Try to stay physically active while sitting in front of a screen – stretch regularly while watching a movie or use an under-desk pedal bike while working.

  • Explore physical hobbies that don’t involve screens – instead of creating digital art, grab a canvas and oil paints or play sports in a nearby park with friends rather than gaming.

  • Go back to physical catchups – encourage face-to-face meetings with friends at a local bar or restaurant instead of over a video call.

  • Follow the 20-20-20 rule – which involves looking at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds for every 20 minutes you spend on a screen.

Even the smallest steps can make a difference in changing your screen time habits for the better. Why not try altering your daily routine by not allowing yourself to check your phone until after breakfast?

Take your screen time into your own hands

It's clear from numerous research studies that too much mobile and computer screen time can be hazardous to our physical and mental health. In the case of children and young people, it can be particularly detrimental. Yet, screens are difficult to escape, as so many daily activities are now done digitally. Fortunately, not all screen time usage impacts our health in the same way (but scrolling through social media is one of the worst culprits for negative effects).

By being aware of the latest screen time stats and facts and monitoring your health, you can decide whether to reduce the amount of time spent on social or watching TV. If so, the above tips should help you lead more of a balanced lifestyle.

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