In today’s technology driven world, we spend a lot of time looking at screens. Unless someone printed this blog out for you, you’re even doing it right now. If you had to guess, how much time do you think  you spend staring at your computer or laptop? What about your smartphone? Or your TV and tablet? A 2015 British study showed that young people look at their phones an average of 5 hours a day, or about one-third of their waking hours.

A Nielson company study found that the average American spends 4.5 hours a day watching TV. The same study found that adults in the US in 2016 spent 10 hours and 39 minutes consuming media (i.e. from smartphones, tablets, personal computers, multimedia devices, video games, radios, DVDs, DVRs and TVs), up from 9 hours and 39 minutes in 2015. What time does this leave for a screen-less reality? And more importantly, what is this actually doing to our brains and bodies?

Poltergeist Image

Relaxing with Your Favorite Screen

These screen-time amounts aren’t comforting, but they are a reflection of the type of world we live in. For a lot of us this is simply our reality because we work on a computer 8 hours a day, we have social media accounts that we check regularly, we have apps that track our fitness, and we have games to play and shows to watch when we’re winding down for the day. For the past two years I’ve worked full time at gap (remotely) and gone to school part- and full-time online for meteorology, and I have no doubt that I spent more hours staring at a computer screen than I did looking at anything else.

Beyond that, there were countless times that I had a smartphone in front of my face while having a laptop with school work on my lap and a TV screen with a show on in the background during my evenings when I was “relaxing”. I would say that after a year of repeating this behavior I definitely felt it take its toll. I had issues falling asleep, I felt physically and mentally exhausted all day, every day. I had low motivation to do anything more than what was required of me, and I almost had to force myself to leave the house on some days. 

Comic of person leaving work computer to go home and work on laptop

Screen Overload

When you research what looking at screens all day does to your body and mind, it makes sense why I felt the way I did all that time. Technology use in general has been shown to affect our cognitive control, including our attention-span and memory retention, in addition to productivity, creative thinking, sleep quality, and stress levels. Of course there are also the obvious impacts of screen over-use such as lack of exercise leading to obesity (most people are sitting still while in front of their screens) and issues with your vision from damage to the retina to eye strain. A 2011 study showed a 52% raised likelihood of death for adults who spend a lot of time staring at screens, and only a 4% decrease (48% raised likelihood) for those who also exercised regularly.

While this is just one study, it suggests that a high amount of screen time daily can’t be offset by the occasional 30-60 minute break to exercise (and that’s assuming you’re not staring at your phone or a TV screen at the gym during that time). There are even some studies now showing that children exposed to too much screen time are more likely to be unable to process emotions. This makes a lot of sense when you consider how social media has in many ways eliminated the need for people to have face-to-face interactions with friends and family. This affects adults, but chances are we learned as children how to interact with each other without a screen being between us. Can you imagine growing up and not being able to properly interpret social behavior or the emotions of those around you? 

Cats staring at human staring at screen

Just Say No (Unless You Have to Work)

Behavioral scientists are working on ways to better understand how technology and screen overexposure really affects us, but there is already enough data out there to suggest that we have to draw the line somewhere. We’ve adapted ourselves to regularly relying on technology to survive, but at what point does it start to actually hinder our ability to thrive? Even since graduating a month ago I’ve noticed a difference in how my body and mind feel because I’ve been limiting my screen usage in the evenings.

It can be difficult to turn everything off entirely but the benefits of unplugging far outweigh the slight anxiety you might feel to check your social media accounts, sports scores, email, or google a random question in your head. Even if you’re skeptical that you look at screens too much, try logging the number of hours you spend in your free time doing something with a screen in front of you. Now try to cut that in half tomorrow. It’ll be harder than you think, but isn’t your well-being worth it? If nothing else, try to keep your phone in your purse or pocket when you’re out with friends, read a book or magazine instead of bingeing a TV show (or do 50-50), or paint, draw, craft, play an instrument, clean or do anything that uses your hands that doesn’t involve a keyboard, remote, or texting. Go outside and reflect on what it must have been like to survive without any source of technology at all (yikes!).

Finally, don’t get too mad at yourself for needing to work 8 hours a day on a computer. You can utilize the 20-20-20 rule: after staring at a screen for 20 minutes, look at an object that is 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Get up and have a staring contest with a coworker across the room for 20 seconds (with their permission, preferably). Put more interesting things on your desk to distract you from your screen, like rocks, plants, Denver Broncos posters, or your cats (just a few things of mine). However you do it, just unplug, put down, turn off, turn away, and feel the benefits of a screen-less reality.