Tips for reducing screen time (and why that might be a good idea)

By Michael Merschel, American Heart Association News

Tenny Teng/iStock via Getty Images
(Tenny Teng/iStock via Getty Images)

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If you're worried about how much time you spend staring at screens but can't imagine life without them, don't worry – nobody is saying you need to switch to a rotary phone or transistor radio.

"Social media and electronic devices are not inherently good or bad," said Dr. Jason Nagata, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. "They do have some health risks. They also have many benefits. Overall, we want people to optimize those benefits and minimize the risks."

On the plus side, the devices can foster social connections, said Dr. Andrea Graham, an assistant professor of medical social sciences and preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. "Social support is incredibly valuable for our mood," she said.

But the burst of brain chemicals we get from a positive interaction on social media can make it hard to step back, Nagata said. And even more passive forms of screen time can have health consequences.

Nagata led a study, published in December in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, showing that every additional hour of TV viewing at age 23 was associated with higher levels of obesity, high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol 25 years later. Other research of his has linked screen use to binge-eating disorders and sleep problems in young people.

Sleep problems and other mental health issues also have been linked to adults' screen time.

Whatever the form, Americans use screens a lot. A Pew Research Center report released in January found that 41% of U.S. adults reported being online "almost constantly." Among those ages 18 to 29, 62% said so. Audience research company Nielsen said adults spent an average of almost five hours a day watching television in 2022, while consumer research company GWI said working-age internet users spent nearly seven hours a day using the internet.

If you're ready to cut back, this advice might help:

Be realistic – and aware

For some, totally unplugging from devices might be fine, said Graham, co-director of Northwestern's Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies. "But that's probably unrealistic for most people."

Many people are overzealous when they first try to adopt healthier habits, said Graham, a psychologist who studies ways to support mental health through apps. If you can go cold turkey, that's fabulous, she said, "but most people need a more gradual approach."

So be "mindful and strategic" about why you're going online, she suggested. You might have started going on social media to relax, but ask yourself: Is it really that relaxing anymore?

Once you've evaluated what you're really getting from your time on screens, eliminate the things that aren't a positive influence.

A 2023 study published in Psychology of Popular Media showed potential benefits from even a brief, partial pullback. College students who limited their social media use to an hour a day for three weeks reported feeling better about their self-image and weight than students who made no changes.

Think about what will fill the gap

When unplugging, you have created time for something that creates joy, Graham said.

That could be health-boosting exercise or stress-reducing meditation. It could even give you more time to meet with friends instead of just commenting on them, she said.

Get tech support

Keeping tabs on screen time can help, Graham said. Most smartphones and tablets have built-in tools for that.

Other experts recommend putting your phone in grayscale mode to make notifications less distracting (and those endless video streams less compelling).

Set an example

If you're a parent, you need to model proper screen behavior, Nagata said. "One of the biggest predictors of childhood screen use is actually their parents' screen use."

Each family's approach will differ, he said, based on factors such as a child's age. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children younger than 18 months not use digital media except for video chatting, and children 18 to 24 months should view only "high-quality" materials, and only with a parent. For children ages 2 to 5, screen time should be limited to one hour a day, the AAP says.

For older children, it suggests no screens during meals or an hour before bedtime. Nagata led a study published last year in Sleep Health that showed many kinds of screen time – streaming movies, playing video games, talking or texting on the phone and more – were associated with sleep issues in early adolescents.

There are no established limits for adults. But if you expect your children to ignore texts and alerts during dinner or family activities, you need to do the same, Nagata said. "If you decide on certain rules as a household, it's really important that parents are also held to those rules."

Talk about it

Working together as a family probably accomplishes more than software that sets hard limits, Nagata said.

"Oftentimes, children are more tech savvy than adults," he said. "And even if you try to put in parental controls, there are ways that they can get around them."

Families might set up screen-free zones – including in bathrooms and bedrooms. "Particularly for younger adolescents, if you want to monitor what kind of content they're watching, have them use screens in public spaces," Nagata said.

The AAP encourages families to work together on a media plan and has a tool for building one on its website.

Nagata said that open discussions now can set younger kids up to make healthy choices later. After all, "you're not going to be able to police them forever."

Pay attention to what happens next

After you take steps toward cutting down on screen time, be aware of how the change affects you, Graham said. If you feel less anxious or find yourself sleeping better or exercising more, "celebrate it, and keep up the positive changes."

Make it personal

Remember, "not all screen time is bad," Nagata said. A video chat with out-of-town grandparents can boost family ties. "If there's a movie that you really want to watch, the family can do it together. Then, you can have a conversation about it."

When it comes to finding a healthy balance, find what works best for your situation. "There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for any individual or even any family," he said.

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