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How Much Screen Time Is Too Much?

Screens offer many benefits, but it's easy to overdo it.

Source: Love portrait and love the world/iStock

We are all on are screens quite a bit these days: It's not just the kids This raises the question: How much screen time is too much? In my previous post, I discussed whether we are overly concerned about the risks posed by screens. My position is that there are legitimate concerns about how we are being affected by our screens, but the sky isn't falling. When we use our screens mindfully and strategically, we can get more of the benefits and reduce some of the negatives.

Just How Much Time Are We Spending on Screens?

According to the market-research group Nielsen, adults spend over 11 hours per day interacting with media. That's up from 9 hours and 32 minutes just 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 that they spent 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 they had for lunch yesterday and how much food they ate, estimating media consumption across multiple formats and devices is extremely difficult.

In fact, much of the research is based on self-reported screen time. Self-reported screen time does not correlate highly with digitally logged screen time. This calls all of these research findings into question.

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, sex, personality variables
  • Characteristics of the context – e.g., playing a video game alone vs. online with strangers vs. in-person with friends
  • Format – 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 using a word processor to write a book (or blog post!) 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 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 use screen time so much that the cons start to outweigh the pros. Even so, there’s not some magical line that is crossed, and the person experiences a steep drop-off. It could be a gradual shift such that the cons start to outweigh the pros on certain metrics of well-being.

My view is that, for many (most?) of us, screen use can slowly and quietly leech away some of our well-being and productivity. We have a hard time setting limits with our screens because 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?

Barring extremes in screen usage, 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 four 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.

So, How Much Is Too Much?

With a huge qualifier—"it depends”—when it comes to recreational screen time for kids and teens, I would say 1-2 hours of recreational screen time per day on school days is a reasonable amount. On weekends and holidays, perhaps 3-4 hours per day of recreational screen time is a reasonable amount. These are more like guidelines than limits, and there would be many exceptions. Importantly, these general guidelines are not to claim that more recreational screen time than this is harmful in a major way. There is not any rock-solid research indicating that recreational screen time within a broad range of normal is going to cause any serious harm.

Reframing this question slightly, I might say that too much screen time might interfere with opportunities to gain greater benefits that experiencing a larger variety of activities offers. For instance, no matter how many benefits Johnny gains from playing Minecraft with his friends, at some point, they would receive different and/or greater benefits from playing hide-and-seek outside or building an actual fort with their hands. Notice there is BIG difference between too much screen time actually causing lasting harm versus it being "sub-optimal" or "not ideal." But did you live your childhood in an optimal way? Me neither!

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.

For the holidays, it’s okay to binge some on screens. Like overeating on the holidays, though, we just don’t want to make it a 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. Anyone up for a board game? If you'd like to take the "red pill" and join me as I explore this and other topics, you can follow me down the rabbit hole here: Finding Greater Peace and Joy in Our "Crazy" World.

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