Screen Time Limits for Grownups?

How to minimize the health risks of using electronic devices

A professional young woman reads from a tablet in a corporate setting.

How to minimize the health risks of using electronic devices

According to a March 2015 report released by the Nielsen company, which measures American media consumption, adults age 18 and older spend more than 11 hours each day using electronic devices. That’s a lot of screen time. All those hours looking at phones, computers, game consoles and tablets can add up to aches, pains — even nerve damage over time.

Much attention and research has centered on the number of hours toddlers and young children spend in front of screens. There is very little corresponding research for adults, however, and the reasons for that are complex.

“I hesitate to offer any kind of screen time recommendations for adults,” says Thomas Carter, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines and medical director of Scripps HealthExpress, which offers retail medicine for office workers.

For one thing, people who work in an office setting typically spend at least 8 hours per day in front of a screen involuntarily, working at a computer.

“They obviously can’t cut down on those hours,” says Dr. Carter.

But adults should definitely be aware of the risks and take steps to mitigate them.

The risks of too much screen time

It’s not just your eyes that may eventually feel the strain of too many hours staring at screens. Other parts of your body also take a hit.

Headaches, neck aches, backaches and shoulder aches

Because of the weight of your head and the angle at which it’s typically held when you look down at a phone or tablet, your neck muscles are supporting the equivalent of 60 lbs. when you check email or text. Throughout the day, that can add up to muscle strains and pain. Plus, sitting too long in one position without moving can also create stiffness and soreness.

Repetitive use injuries

Tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome are just a couple of the ways your body may rebel against prolonged computer and gadget use.

Stress and sleep troubles

A constant river of information from social and normal media — even positive information — can be overwhelming, while too much troubling and negative news can cause anxiety. “The light from backlit screens like TVs and tablets is also known to interfere with the body’s natural ability to wind down before sleep,” says Dr. Carter.

Weight gain and metabolic syndrome

Several studies have correlated hours spent watching TV and playing video games with weight gain and the high-blood-sugar, pre-diabetes condition known as metabolic syndrome. Time spent in front of screens tends to cut down on physically active time.

Eye strain and dryness

As much as a full day of push-ups would leave your arms exhausted, a day of unrelenting staring at screens can add up to eyes that are red, overtaxed and weary. Plus, when we focus on what we’re looking at, we tend to blink less often, leading to dry eyes.

Reducing risks and harm from screen-time

These six simple tips can help reduce risks associated with prolonged screen-time.

1. Take frequent breaks and stretch

If you work in front of a screen, make sure you take a break and look away at least every 30 minutes. “Avert your gaze and look at something 20 feet away or more — and ideally, stand up, stretch and move around,” Dr. Carter advises. When you’re in your chair, back and neck stretches can help keep muscles loose. Learn a few “chair yoga” moves and practice those for 5 minutes at frequent intervals throughout the day.

2. Leverage technology

If you find it difficult to disengage from your screen, let technology help. Using a phone or your email or calendar system, set alarms reminding you to take breaks. You can also use high-tech solutions to combat inactivity and weight gain. “Activity monitors worn on the body, like Fitbits, tend to increase your activity level simply because you’re paying attention to it,” says Dr. Carter.

3. Stand when you can

Get a headset, stand up and walk around when you talk on the phone. If you have the means to transform your workspace into a standing desk for at least part of the day, consider doing that. “The fewer hours you spend sitting, the better,” says Dr. Carter.

4. Pay attention to your posture

A natural, upright posture (with slight curves in the lower back and shoulders) helps to support your head and reduces fatigue and aches. Paying attention to your posture throughout the day, whether sitting or standing, can help to reduce some of the strains of screen time. Use your 30-minute breaks to do posture checks until sitting or standing up straight becomes a habit.

5. Don’t eat in front of a screen

We tend to eat more when we’re watching TV or playing games. To combat that trend, designate separate meal times and stick to them. Banish snacks from the entertainment area.

6. Keep screens out of the bedroom

Avoid using any kind of backlit screen in the hour right before bedtime, because these emit light that can interrupt your quality of sleep. In fact, Dr. Carter advises keeping devices — including TVs — out of the bedroom completely.