Practicing intentional screen use for better mental and physical health

As a psychotherapist, I spend a lot of time educating my clients about the impact of screen time and social media on their mental health. I know how challenging it can be to turn the TV off, power down your phone, and stow away your e-reader as you get ready for bed. I also know how tempting it is to scroll through social media as you drift off to sleep or to automatically reach for your phone first thing when you wake up in the morning. It’s a hard habit to break when so much information and entertainment is just a click away.

You’ve likely read or heard about how using social media taps into the reward center of your brain much like slot machines and addictive substances do, making it easy to get sucked into hours and hours of content consumption. And you’ve probably heard that being exposed to the blue light that many screens emit before bedtime negatively affects your ability to fall asleep and the quality of your sleep cycles. Plus, too much screen time also increases your risk of eye strain, headaches, neck and shoulder pain, and dry eyes.

Accepting the necessity of screens

Because of these as well as other research findings, we all know that spending too much time on our devices isn’t healthy. But it’s also almost impossible to completely avoid using some kind of screen each day. A Pew Research Center study found that 28 percent of American adults say that they are “almost constantly” online (this number increased from 21 percent in 2015). Many of us spend the majority of our working hours (or school time) using some kind of screen. For example, the average American worker spends seven hours a day on the computer, according to the American Optometric Association. And then we come home and spend more time on a variety of screens whether it be the TV, our smartphones, our computers, or e-readers. Screens have become an integral part of our work and leisure lives. For example, you are reading this article on a screen, and I researched and wrote this article on my computer.

So how much screen time is too much? Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus among the medical community regarding what constitutes the “correct amount” of screen time for adults (the World Health Organization recently published its screen time recommendations for children). While it may be frustrating to not have an exact number of recommended hours or minutes, in many ways, this lack of clarity is understandable both because the way we use screens is both relatively new and because our use is rapidly changing. Additionally, because using screens is a necessity for many people both at work and at home, limiting our use, especially at work, can be incredibly challenging. For this reason, the research on adult screen time seems to focus more on healthy practices to help you both manage your use of screens and prevent any known long-term effects of screen use.

Guidelines for good screen use

One guideline that many experts have offered is to monitor the value you are getting from using a screen and the value you are losing from using it, according to Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown University who has spoken on the topic for Time Magazine and Business Insider. In other words, to a certain extent, it matters less how long you spend on screens, and it matters more how and why you are using them.

For example, it matters whether you are using screens for a specific purpose (e.g., work, accessing needed information, to connect with others) or if it is more of mindless habit (e.g., you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through Instagram while waiting in line at the coffee shop). With this in mind, it’s worth asking yourself: is most of your screen time intentional or mindless? For a healthy balance, it’s worth aiming for an intentional use of your smartphone, TV, computer, and e-readers rather than a dependent relationship with them.

In the end, the “right” amount of screen time is more about how you are using your screen as well as how you are minimizing any negative impact its use can have on your health. For your eye health, you can embrace the 20-20-20 rule: take a break from looking at your screen every twenty minutes to look at something twenty feet away for twenty seconds. You can also get blue light blocking glasses and dim the brightness of your screen to help prevent eye strain.

Another choice that could help is to opt for an e-reader like the Kindle paperwhite or the Nook, because these utilize a different type of technology that does not emit blue light and contribute to eye strain or disrupt sleep cycles in the same way that your TV, computer, and smartphone do. So if you need to read something before bed, reach for your e-reader (or a physical book!), and you can read in peace knowing you aren’t potentially messing with your sleep health.

By taking a few steps toward intentional screen use, you can minimize negative effects on your health and wellness.