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Screen time: What it is and how to limit it

Digital lifestyle
Screen time: What it is and how to limit it
Digital lifestyle

Looking to understand and limit your screen time? We review the average screen time for children, teens and adults, and discuss ways to make some lifestyle changes.

Screentime is the time we spend on our devices. The time you spend looking at your computer screen, tv, playing games on your games console or browsing and texting on your phone is considered to be screen time.

How much time do we spend looking at our screens?

According to research done by Nielsen for Eyesafe in the USA, adults spent an average of 8 hours and 40 minutes on their screens in 2018. In March 2020 the total of hours spent looking at screens had risen to over 13 hours. The average number of hours that people spent on their phone was over 4,5 hours a day in 2020. This sharp rise can of course be explained by the Covid-19 pandemic, forcing people to stay indoors more.
  • Why is screen time interesting to researchers?

Most of us tend to not count the hours that we spend on our computers to work as screen time. The reason why so many researchers are interested in the hours that we use to stare at screens, is blue light. This light, also known as HEV (high energy visible) light. This type of light makes up about 25% of natural sunlight.
  • Screen time and blue light

The high energy levels of blue light emitted by screens of electronic devices penetrate deep into the retinas in our eyes. When the sun sets in the evening, our eyes naturally take in less blue light. This signals our bodies to start producing melatonin. Melatonin enables the body to wind down and get ready to sleep. In a nutshell, blue light makes us more alert and can make your body think it’s daytime. Instinctively our eyes respond to the bright rays of the sun and blue light by squinting, looking away from the sun and making the pupils in our eyes smaller. By spending a lot of time looking at the screens in our lives that emit blue light, we appear to be constantly telling our bodies to be alert and awake.
  • What is the effect of too much screen time?

The use of social media, the internet and playing games online can absolutely be beneficial to the development of motor skills, social interaction and gaining knowledge. This applies to both children, teens and adults. Social media and texting enable us to stay in touch with loved ones and to communicate with others. However, as with most things in life, too much of a good thing can be harmful. Research done by Barr-Anderson in 2009 shows that children as well as adults are at a higher risk of developing screen addiction, sleep disorders and attention disorders (such as ADD/ADHD) when spending a lot of time using screens.

Examples of issues that may arise from a lot of daily screen time are:

  • Weight gain; more time is spent sitting down whilst playing games, browsing, chatting online.
  • Showing more aggressive behaviour. Children and teens who play violent games or watch violent content during formative years can have a higher tolerance for behaving aggressively.
  • Making unhealthy food choices. Screen time keeps the body ‘awake’ for a longer period of time. This can result in cravings for sugary snacks and drinks.
  • Developing sleep disorders, having trouble falling asleep.
  • Developing attention deficit disorders or hyperactivity. The constant light, sound and multitasking has an effect on our focus.
  • Developing screen addiction or suffering from pressure or cyberbullying online.

What is the average screen time per day per age?

Let’s look at the average screen time per age group in the UK. This way you can discover if your average day and the time that you spend looking at screens matches the findings of researchers. If you want to find out exactly how much time you spend on your phone, you can use one of the free available screen time trackers. Or make a quick estimate of your average screen time per day.

Average screen time for children between 5-16 years of age

Research done by UNICEF (updated in March 2021) shows that children aged between 5-16 years old in the UK spend a significant amount of time on their screens. The children in this age group spend an average of 2 to 3 hours a day watching television. In addition to watching the telly, they spend between 1-3 hours on the internet. Playing their favourite games takes up to 1-2 hours a day. Add about an hour of playing games or texting and browsing on smartphones to this, averaging to a total of 6.3 hours of screen time per day.

The average screen time for adults in the UK

Research done by Uswitch in 2021 shows that the average UK adult spends over 6 hours a day on the internet. For this any device is used, such as a laptop, smartphone or a tablet. Surprisingly this is the same number of hours spent on an average work shift! In addition to that adults watch an average of 4 hours a day watching tv. We spend a daily 1,8 hours on social media and about 1,3 hours listening to music on our electronic devices per day. Summed up; UK adults spend an average of 4,542 hours in front of a screen every year.

Screen time recommendations by age

There is no hard limit when it comes to screen time recommendations by age group. However, the World Health Organisation and the American Academy of Paediatrics Screen Time Guidelines (2016) make strong recommendations regarding limiting time spent using screens. The guidelines recommend the following maximum amount of screen time per age group. Find out from these guidelines how you can manage screen time for children, depending on their age:

Children younger than 18 months:

Children in this age group should not be watching screens or digital media. This includes watching tv. If you have children in the age group between 18-24 months you can introduce digital media to your child, if you feel you want to. However, the World Health Organisation recommends choosing high-quality programmes, geared towards the specific age group of your child. Always watch with your child. This way you can monitor the child and help your child understand what it is watching.

Children aged 2 to 5 years:

For this age group watching tv or digital content on electronic screens should still be done together with your child. Make sure to only watch quality content geared towards children. Explain and talk about what is being shown on the screen. This way looking at a device can be used as an educational tool that may help the child understand more about the world around them. Limit the screen time of the child to a maximum of one hour a day.

Children aged 6 or older:

Make sure to consistently limit the screen time for your child from the age of 6. You could consider setting aside an hour in which your child can enjoy their favourite tv programme or game. Make sure to supervise your child when watching and choose age-appropriate games or content. Screen time should never have an effect on play time or physical activity and social contacts. Find out more about the best age to give your child a mobile phone. Make sure to stick to media and screen-free spaces in your home. Bedrooms or other rooms in your home should at all times be designated for other activities or a restful sleep. Start talking about good behaviour online and keeping safe, as well as about treating others with respect in the real world as well as online.

Screen time limits for tweens and teens

  1. Stay aware of online activities that your child might need to complete for school, such as research for homework. Try to do this together with an adult. This way you can teach your child to safely navigate the internet.
  2. Limit the use of a mobile phone to chat or game to an hour or two a day and set a time (preferably from 2 hours before bed time at least) after which the smartphone or other electronic device need to be switched off or handed in.
  3. Keep bedrooms free from the use of screens. Use a and top it up with a small amount of credit for the use of a mobile phone. Teach your child to use phone credit responsibly. Install a parental control app and make sure to lock content and websites you don’t want you tween or teenager to use.
  4. Stimulate social activities, sports activities and plan the odd screen-free day for the family.
Read the entire report by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health here.

Screen time limits for adults

Most adults tend to use their smartphones during the evening hours in which they are watching tv. From shopping to chatting and browsing social media, it all happens online on our screens. Put your phone away two hours before bed time and avoid using your phone or tablet in bed. This research shows that limiting your time on social media to a maximum of 30 minutes a day can contribute to better mental health and wellbeing. For those who work on a computer, limiting after work screen time hours is especially important. Try to stick to a maximum of 2 hours of screen time a day. This includes watching tv and gaming.

How to limit screen time

Go for an ‘old-fashioned’ book or play relaxing sleep enabling sounds from your phone, tucked away safely on a shelf far from your bed. Install apps to limit screen time, such as Unpluq or use Apple’s Screen Time Limit feature on your devices. Perfect to set screen time limits on your iPhone!

Switch off notifications after work or after dinner. This will enable you to disconnect from your phone and focus on the world around you.

Leave your phone at home or simply switch it off every now and then. This may at first feel odd to you, as we are so used to having our news, social media and messages available at all times. After a week you may just find that you feel more relaxed and have less trouble falling asleep!

Written by

Ravian Ruys