For most of us, technology is unavoidable. You might wake up and immediately reach for your phone. You probably check social media throughout the day and connect with friends, family and colleagues via video calls. In fact, you’re reading this very article on some form of electronic device!
From video games to television, tablets and smartphones… it is sometimes difficult to get away from our screens.
Most of us know that excessive screen time isn’t good for our health, but what’s the deal with using your devices appropriately?
Is screen time definitely bad for you?
In a word, no! In many ways, technology has made our lives easier and more exciting, and that is a good thing, according to the Australian Government’s eSafety Commissioner.
“Technology can enhance people’s opportunities to play, express themselves, learn and connect with others,” a spokesperson said. “Video games can also improve cognitive abilities, including providing problem-solving and logical thinking opportunities, and improve hand-eye coordination and decision-making.”
So it’s obvious there are some benefits to using some of the technology at our fingertips, but there can be downsides.
Screen time and kids
In Australia, screen time is a regular part of children's and young people’s lives but parents report that excessive screen time is the top health concern they have for their children, and they are worried their children spend too much time on electronic devices.
So, how much is too much for young kids? The Australian Government’s 24-hour movement guidelines for the early years (birth through to five years), and children and young people (5–17 years) recommend:
- No screen time for children younger than two years
- No more than one hour per day for children aged 2–5
- No more than two hours of sedentary recreational screen time per day for children and young people aged 5–17 years (not including schoolwork)
Most children in Australia spend more time on screens than these recommendations. Estimates from primary research suggest only 17–23% of pre-schoolers and 15% of children aged 5-12 meet screen time guidelines.
It’s not all bad though. While there are risks to spending time online, there are some benefits, according to the Australian Government’s eSafety Commissioner spokesperson.
“In the early years, children are naturally curious about devices their parents and caregivers use. While it is important screen time does not replace face-to-face play and communication, quality screen content can benefit children. Sharing digital experiences like face-timing family or helping take photos helps build trust and social connection, for example,” they said.
“Primary school-aged children learn from play-based activities and social interactions, including online games. At this age, they are often beginning to use online tools to communicate. Younger children need support to understand online risks and consider how their online actions impact others. They also need help and guidance to make positive decisions about technology use, including learning about and practising active management of technology use and screen time.
“Tweens and teens use technology to explore their identities and learn about the world around them. This can include understanding and managing their physical and mental well-being, preparing themselves for professional life or exploring relationships and sex. Technology can also bring social benefits through increased opportunities to connect with friends and peers.
“But adolescence can be a time of increased risk-taking, and this can impact on the quantity and quality of online experiences. Technology can cause harm if it is used to amplify bullying or social exclusion. Tweens and teens need the support of trusted adults to help them build confidence and independence as they navigate online challenges.”
Screen time and adults
It’s not just young people who have to navigate their use of screens — many adults also spend too much time glued to their devices.
But how much is too much? The Australian Government’s eSafety spokesperson says it can be a balancing act.
“Adults use technology in many areas of life, and technology has the potential to be a tool to increase well-being and life satisfaction. Adults can also have challenges balancing time online with other priorities, as technology is increasingly designed to keep users on apps engaging for longer,” they said.
“Adults may also be targeted or discriminated against due to race, gender or sexuality, and this can cause mental health impacts. And technology can be used to amplify offline harms, including domestic abuse, sexual harassment, and extremism.”
What is the evidence on the effects of excessive screen time?
According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, “excessive screen time can lead to poor health and developmental outcomes”. However, the evidence for the bad outcomes that are claimed (such as effects on weight, development and well-being) is far from settled.
It’s difficult to measure the effects of screen time on children’s development because there are so many variables at play. Not only does the type of activity matter (you can do lots of things on the internet), but how much of the effect is simply due to sitting, rather than running around outside?
There’s one type of online activity, and its effect, that’s of particular concern to many people: social media use and mental health.
A couple of years ago, evidence emerged suggesting kids’ screen time had only a very small negative impact on their mental well-being – about the same size as the positive effect of eating potatoes1. Then, when different researchers looked at the same data sets in a slightly different way, they observed a large negative association between social media use and mental health; about the same size as the effect of binge drinking, using heroin or skipping school (depending on the data set)2. But such a large effect was observed only in girls; the strength of the association was 70-80% lower in boys (the study doesn’t provide information about how other factors compare in males).
It seems that it’ll be a while yet before we have reliable evidence about effects on mental health to guide screen time recommendations for boys and men.
Symptoms of too much screen time
The Australian Government’s esafety platform states the following signs may indicate you are spending too much time online:
- Ongoing headaches, eye strain and sleep disturbance
- Neck, back or hand pain
- Online activities interfering with your health, well-being or relationships
- Regularly checking your device while trying to complete other tasks
- Constantly talking about things you have seen on social media
- Withdrawing from offline friends and activities
- Attributing more importance to your online activities and contacts than anything else
- A decline in performance at work, school or university
Screen time and sleep
Many people reach for their phones as soon as they wake up, and/or take their phones with them as they climb into bed at the end of the day. This behaviour causes further issues when it comes to our sleep.
There are many reasons to try to avoid screen time just before bed — using screens stimulates your brain, which makes it hard to wind down for a peaceful night’s sleep. Also, blue light from screens affects the production of the hormone melatonin, which can mess with your sleep-wake cycle.
Stress can also make it hard for you to drift off, which means it’s best to avoid checking your work emails, reading about current affairs and ‘doomscrolling’ in bed.
One old-fashioned rule that can be helpful to follow is ‘only use your bed for sleeping or sex’ — so try not to use your phone, watch TV or use computers in bed.
Tips for reducing your screentime
The Western Australian Department of Health outlines some simple steps you can try to incorporate to drag yourself away from your screens. These include:
- Limit non-work screen time
- Keep bedrooms screen-free
- Make mealtimes free of TVs, smartphones and other screens
- Use the time during TV ads to be physically active
- Limit socialising on social media or texting
The Australian Government’s eSafety commissioner spokesperson states: “As technology use becomes enmeshed with almost every aspect of life and culture, our choices become increasingly complex. Encouraging mindful use of technology and utilising the screen time tools provided can support physical and mental wellbeing.”
Their tips include:
- Involve your child in creating a family plan for leisure and entertainment that balances time spent sitting in front of screens – and various offline activities.
- Play games together as a family or explore some joint online projects. Rather than just a solitary activity, online time can become another way of strengthening connections and building social skills.
- Learn about sleep and strategies for sleep hygiene, including limiting devices before bedtime and storing them outside the bedroom during the night.
- Talk about personal and social skills for managing well-being online. One thing you can do is pay attention to physical cues in your body (muscle soreness, increased heart rate). These can be signs time online is causing stress or discomfort.
- Use automatic limits and digital reminders to encourage balanced technology use. These are included on many devices, apps and social media services. Using reminders can provide a helpful counterbalance to features designed to maximise time online.
- Watch for signs screen use is impacting mental well-being. These can include diminished interest in previously enjoyable activities, changes in behaviour or hyper-focus on particular games or activities. If this happens to you or your child, start by discussing the issue. You can also consider your school or counselling services to get extra help.
- Parental controls are software tools that allow you to monitor and limit what your child sees and does online. But be honest and open with your children about why and how you want to use these technologies. The effectiveness of these tools can be limited, especially as children grow older. They are best used as part of a holistic approach to manage time online, including learning self-regulation skills.
- Orben & Przybylski, 2019. The association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use. Nature Human Behaviour
- Twenge et al., 2022. Specification curve analysis shows that social media use is linked to poor mental health, especially among girls. Acta Psychologica