Screens are everywhere. They’re in our pockets, on our desks, in our living rooms and bedrooms, and sometimes even in our cars. Especially during this last year of increased distance learning and working from home, there seems to be no escape.
While screens aren’t inherently bad (consider the positive impact they’ve had on communication, business, and learning!), they can interfere with some of the best things in life: focused face-to-face conversations, physical activity, and appreciation for and enjoyment of nature, just to name a few. (Not only that, they collect dust and germs galore!) To encourage Americans to reduce screen time, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood established Screen-Free Week. This “annual invitation to play, explore, and rediscover the joys of life beyond ad-supported screens” is celebrated in May.
This year, organizers are asking that families to “celebrate however you can,”, acknowledging that current circumstances might make it difficult to completely put the screens away. The idea isn’t to put added pressure on schools, organizations, or families during a stressful time; it’s to find opportunities to take a break from screen-based entertainment.
Why should you unplug?
The use of screens for everything from work to school to entertainment to everyday communication is so ubiquitous that it’s easy for them to take over – and they are. A 2010 study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that children ages 8-18 averaged 7.5 hours of “entertainment media” each day, and adults averaged more than 11 hours of daily screen time. And that was 11 years ago (and pre-pandemic).
What does all this screen time do to our relationships and overall health? Quite a bit.
Screens have a unique way of simultaneously connecting us and pulling us apart. We’re able to keep in touch with friends and loved ones who live far away, learn about events on the other side of the world, and meet people we would likely never cross paths with in person. On the flip side, we can become so consumed by what’s on our screens that we ignore the people right in front of us.
Researchers believe that one unique characteristics of humans is our ability to “share meaning and collaborate on goals through the coordination of eye gaze.” They argue that an increased use of screens, which can interfere with our ability to make eye contact (Zoom meetings notwithstanding), is preventing deeper connection between people.
Screen time can impact your relationship with your own children, too. One survey of 6,000 parents and children found that 54% of children felt their parents were on their phones too much, and 32% felt they were unimportant when their parents were using their phones.
In short, screens may be inhibiting our ability to connect with others on an emotional level. A UCLA study found that middle school-aged children experienced a “decreased sensitivity to emotional cues – losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people” with high screen usage. The same study found that these children improved their ability to interpret emotional cues after attending a five-day, screen-free nature camp.
Beyond the social and emotional repercussions of too much screen time, there are real health concerns as well. Screens themselves are virtual petri dishes for germs, blue light emitted from electronic devices can interfere with sleep, and excess time spent engaging in sedentary activities can contribute to a person’s risk of obesity.
- Germs: The primary culprit for germ infestation is your cell phone. Think about how – and where – you use it, and that shouldn’t surprise you. One study found that 1 in every 6 smartphones has fecal matter on it. Other studies have found evidence of bacteria such as Streptococcus, MRSA, and coli on many smartphones. Aside from limiting how often and where you use your phone (or other portable devices such as tablets and laptops), you can protect yourself and your family from germ build-up by using a screen cleaner. The Flents® Wipe 'n Clear® collection of lens cleaners and wipes are a great, convenient option.
- Disrupted sleep: As we’ve discussed in a previous blog post, the blue light emitted by electronics can trick your body into thinking it’s daytime, which can delay sleep. Experts recommend turning off screens (televisions, computers, smartphones, etc.) at least a half-hour before going to bed.
- Obesity: Studies have found a correlational connection between children’s screen usage and obesity. Researchers believe screens contribute to obesity due to increased snacking while using screens, electronic advertising on said screens promoting high-calorie, low-nutrient food, and interrupted sleep. While these studies are specific to children and adolescents, the results ring true for adults, too. In addition, most screen activities are enjoyed in a sedentary setting, interfering with opportunities for adequate exercise.
It’s safe to say that unplugging, even for a few hours, could have noticeable positive impacts on your and your family’s health and well-being.
Screens and children
There is a heavy focus on how screens impact children in particular. In addition to the emotional and health-related consequences we’ve already covered, there is also something to be said for screens’ influence on developing brains.
One potential side-effect to too much screen time for children is decreased creativity. Pediatrician and Harvard Medical School associate professor Michael Rich worries that using screens, “provides ‘impoverished’ stimulation of the developing brain compared to reality.” He cautions that, “Children need a diverse menu of online and offline experiences, including the chance to let their minds wander.”
Another possible concern comes back to screens’ role in disrupting sleep. The blue light emitted when children play games or text their friends before bed can suppress the secretion of melatonin, which can reduce the amount of REM sleep they get. This can interfere with their brains’ ability to process and store information. That means that even if they are physically awake for all of their classes, they may have a harder time remembering what they learned.
How can you reduce screen time?
So, how can you reduce screens in a time when we’re all especially reliant on them?
Some of the recommendations offered by Michael Rich (the pediatrician/Harvard professor) include regularly sitting down to screen-free meals with your children, avoiding screens before bed, and helping your children plan their time, helping them think about activities they enjoy and can spend more time with in lieu of screen time.
Other tips from the Minnesota Department of Health include limiting screen time duration and content for young children, keeping screens out of bedrooms, and creating technology-free zones or times, like during dinner. These small steps can help foster an appreciation for non-screen activities and improve quality of sleep.
Whether you initiate a “no phones” rule during dinner and turn the television off 30 minutes before bed, or you cut out all non-work screen usage for an entire week, we hope you’ll consider giving your body and mind a break from the screen – and we’d be surprised if you regret it!
USA Today: Your smartphone is 7 times dirtier than your toilet. Here's how to clean it.
Screen-Free Week: Screen-Free Week
Screen-Free Week: Save the date! Screen-Free Week 2021
VeryWell Family: The Harmful Effects of Too Much Screen Time for Kids
Fast Company: Screens are lifesavers right now, but they’re still relationship wreckers
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Diseases Caused by Group A Strep
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: E. coli (Escherichia coli)
Sleep Foundation: How to Determine Poor Sleep Quality
Institute of Digital Media and Child Development: Obesity
Harvard Medical School: Screen Time and the Brain
National Physicians Center: Technology Use & Screen Time Impacting Relationships
Minnesota Department of Health: TV, Screen Time and Health