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Too Much Screen Time: How to Set Limits

Reviewed Apr 4, 2014


  • Take "tech breaks."
  • Time your screen use.
  • Get outside.

Many of our daily interactions with others are done electronically, maybe even more so than face-to-face. We can contact people and access the Internet just about anywhere, anytime we want.

We are spending more time in front of screens than ever before, and it might be more than is good for us. Larry Rosen, Ph.D., author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us, says that many teenagers and young adults check in with social media and their smartphones every 15 minutes or less. And if they can’t, they get nervous.

This feeling of anxiety explains the urge to check e-mail, texts, Twitter or Facebook at any opportunity. It’s why some of us can’t make it through a movie, dinner or a conversation without doing so. We fear we might miss something important, Dr. Rosen says.

Excessive screen time can affect:

Relationships. When you’re behind a screen, you’re not giving yourself the time to connect with the people who are around you, Dr. Rosen says.

  • Often in our homes, someone is watching TV, someone is playing Angry BirdsTM, and someone else is texting—all while having a conversation with one another.
  • It’s common to be doing more than one activity at a time at work too. How often do you see co-workers distracted by their phones during meetings?
  • You might realize that you rely on social media sites to stay up-to-date with friends. When was the last time you met your friends in person? One study has even shown a direct link between levels of jealousy among partners and the amount of time spent on Facebook.

Self-esteem. Too much time watching or reading about others’ lives can cause you to feel inadequate. Negative online comments can hurt feelings, even when not intentional.

Physical health. On-demand video services have led to a new phenomenon—“binge TV viewing,” or spending hours watching one episode after another in a series. Watching TV, playing video games and surfing the Web often replace enjoyable—and more active—pursuits like taking walks and playing sports. Numerous studies have linked TV viewing with obesity. Obesity can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Staring at a screen for long hours can also lead to blurred vision, headaches and sore eyes.

Mental health. A report by the American Academy of Pediatrics has linked social media sites to signs of depression in adolescents because it can cause teens to feel like they don’t measure up to their peers.

Finding balance

If you’re spending more time behind a screen than you’d like, here are ideas to help you cut back:

Take “tech breaks.” Dr. Rosen suggests training your brain to live without technology for periods of time. Families can try this before dinners together, employees can try it before meetings and you can do it by yourself. Give everyone 2 minutes to check their Facebook, Twitter, texts, e-mails, etc., then ask them to put their devices away. Set an alarm for a certain time, for example, 15 minutes, at which point everyone can check in with their devices again. Gradually, you can lengthen the tech break to 20 minutes, then 30, and so on.

Move your TV. Put your TV somewhere where it won’t be the center of attention. Do not allow televisions in children’s bedrooms; it is strongly associated with child obesity.

Get outside. Research has shown that nature has a restoring effect on your brain. This is especially helpful if you’re feeling anxious about being away from your smartphone, computer or a video game.

Set designated no-screen hours for yourself and your family. During this time Dr. Rosen suggests engaging in activities that are physically stimulating (such as gardening or a sport) and ones that provide a psychological reward (such as reading a book or playing cards). Make plans for things you’d like to do during this time, and post your list. Ask your family members to add to the list, too.

Time yourself. Research shows that 71 percent of binge TV viewers intended to watch only 1 or 2 episodes of TV. To avoid getting “sucked in,” decide how much time you want to watch TV, play a video game or surf the Internet, and set a timer for that time.

Set limits for children. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages TV and other media use by children younger than age 2. For older children, they recommend total screen time (including video games) be less than 1 to 2 hours per day.

Watch for warning signs

Remember, moods are contagious. If the TV shows you are watching are depressing, choose other programs. Hide people on your Facebook page if their posts upset or irritate you.

Some personality types may be prone to addiction. Talk to a professional if screen time is interfering with your normal life; it could be a sign of Internet addiction.

You should also seek help if you are experiencing feelings of anxiety or depression.

By Melanie O'Brien
Source: The American Academy of Pediatrics: "Clinical Report: The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families,"; iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us by Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012; Muise, Amy and Christofides, Emily and Desmarais, Serge. CyberPsychology & Behavior. August 2009, 12(4): 441-444. doi:10.1089/cpb.2008.0263; Rideout V. and E. Hamel. The media family: electronic media in the lives of infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their parents. Menlo Park: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2006; Unplugged: Overcoming Our Digital Obsession. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on National Public Radio, WAMU, 88.5, Washington, DC, May 14, 2013.
Reviewed by Sherrie Sharp, M.D., Associate Medical Director, ValueOptions Inc.

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