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Screens have become an integral part of our lives. During the Covid-19 pandemic, you may have found yourself relying on screens to do your job or attend classes, stay connected with loved ones, buy your groceries, be entertained, and even guide you through exercise. The digital world has allowed society and individuals to continue functioning in ways that wouldn’t have been possible fifty years ago. Even so, is all of the time spent in front of screens getting to be a bit much?

How much of your day is spent staring at your computer, smartphone, tablet, or TV screen? With smartphone use alone, Australian adults average 5.5 hours of screen time per day or approximately 33% of waking hours. Worldwide, adults average 7 hours of computer and mobile screen time daily, with use among some populations increasing by up to 80 percent during the pandemic.

For all of the conveniences that our devices provide, the harmful effects are well documented. Fortunately, if you’re feeling the symptoms of too much screen time, there are ways you can help to manage your screen time better — even when it’s a necessary part of your job. 

Screen time and health

The negative effects of screen time can be physical, mental and emotional. Being sedentary, reading from a screen, blinking less frequently, and being exposed to blue light can have harmful effects on your eyes and your entire body. A lot of the content that is viewed most often on screens, like social media, may also negatively influence your mental health. 

Time attached to a screen also means time away from other, health-promoting activities such as exercise, socialising, engaging in hobbies, and practising self-care. The symptoms of too much screen time can include:

Physical symptoms 

  • Dry eyes

  • Blurred vision

  • Headaches

  • Sore neck and back

  • Tiredness

  • Negative impacts on diet and maintaining a healthy weight

  • Increased chance of developing diabetes and heart disease

Mental symptoms 

  • Delayed motor and cognitive development in children

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Difficulty with problem-solving

Emotional symptoms 

  • Decreased social wellbeing

  • Increased risk of anxiety and depression

  • Lower self-control and emotional stability

In addition to how screen time affects you personally, it can also have negative impacts on your workplace productivity. One study on smartphone use found that subjects checked their phones 58 times a day on average, with 30 of those phone checks occurring during working hours. 

Research has shown that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back into a state of deep focus after an interruption. With so much phone checking, that adds up to a lot of time spent out of your most productive headspace. 

6 steps for managing screen fatigue

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, there are steps you can take to cut back on screen time and reduce the harmful effects of screens when you do use them. 

1. Monitor your screen time

How much of your daily screen time is necessary? Many phones can track screen time and will tell you what apps you are spending the most time using. They can also record the number of times you check your phone throughout the day. If you don’t already use this feature, try it for a few days and see what you learn. Were the numbers higher than expected? Were you truly checking work emails, or was the majority of your time spent on social media or watching videos?

You may also like to keep a journal for a few days recording all forms of screen time. How much TV did you watch? How much time was spent on your computer? From this, you can decide where your screen time can be scaled back.

2. Follow the 20/20 rule

To prevent eye strain, use the 20/20 rule to give your eyes time to relax and refocus. For every 20 minutes spent staring at a screen, look at something in the distance for 20 seconds. Not only will it keep your eyes healthy, but you can use it as a good excuse to gaze out the window throughout your workday. 

3. Care for your eyes

We tend to blink less frequently when we stare at our screens, which can lead to dry eyes. To combat this symptom, remember to blink often and use rewetting eye drops if needed. 

4. Block the blue

Screens expose you to blue light waves, which are the shortest, most high-energy visible light waves on the electromagnetic spectrum. Most research does not currently show any strong links between blue light exposure and poorer eye health. However, blue light scatters more easily than other forms of visible light, which can make it more difficult for your eyes to focus and lead to eye strain. 

Blue light also affects your circadian rhythms and can lead to disturbed sleep. Your eyes can sense the difference between blue daytime light, and the warmer, redder hues you see in the evening as the sun sets. The change in colour signals to your body that it’s time to release melatonin, the hormone responsible for inducing sleep. This is why experts recommend avoiding screens for at least 30 minutes before bedtime. You can also minimise the effects of blue light by using blue light blocking glasses or screen protectors. 

5. Make healthy swaps

To get off your screen, why not do things ‘the old fashioned way’ where you can? Write things down with a pen and paper, read a book instead of scrolling through your phone, or listen to music to relax instead of watching TV. And if you just can’t give up the convenience of technology, you can still reduce your screen time by using voice notes to avoid typing messages or make audio calls instead of video calls. 

6. Less screen time, more green time

One of the best ways to unplug and offset some of the negative effects of screen time is by spending more time in nature. When you disconnect from the digital world, you can reconnect with the feeling of the sun on your skin, the smell of fresh flowers, and the sounds of water flowing over rocks. These activities naturally encourage mindfulness, boost your mood, reduce stress, and increase creativity. Nature acts as a reset button for your pre-frontal cortex, creating space for your mind to wander. Without all of the attention-stealing stimulation of tech devices, you are better able to focus, problem-solve, and recall information.

Today’s action steps:

  • Track your smartphone use, using the screen time feature on your phone if it has one. You may also want to use this time to set time limits on app use, and to silence any unnecessary alerts.

  • Also track and write down the minutes spent using computers, tablets and TV today.

  • At the end of the day, look at where you’ve invested your screen time. Could you reduce this time by even 25 percent? If you had eight hours of total screen time today, what changes could you make to have a maximum of six hours tomorrow? 

  • Write down a screen time goal for tomorrow and decide how you will achieve this. Will you stick to a time limit or find screen-free alternatives? 

  • Finally, challenge yourself to a screen-free weekend. Sound scary? Then you should give it a try! Go ahead — ride your bike, take the kids to the zoo, paint a picture, swim in the ocean or meet friends for a BBQ. Give your brain a chance to unplug and reset by connecting in person with others and surrounding yourself with nature.

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