Screens are everywhere in our contemporary lives. By embracing the conveniences and joys of advanced technology, we’ve also welcomed a plethora of glowing rectangles into almost every aspect of our environment. They are in our hands, on our walls, sometimes even on our refrigerators.
This isn’t necessarily a negative thing. Our devices provide us access to knowledge that would have been unthinkable a generation or two ago. Our digital age has allowed us to virtually connect with fellow human beings across the planet, and become more culturally enriched. These screens are portals through which we can interact with a more diverse world.
However, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that the amount of time we spend with our eyes locked to screens can be harmful. There is little chance that we’ll be seeing any alternative to these ubiquitous rectangles any time soon, so it’s in our best interest to look a little closer at the risks. What is the potential for damage, and what can we do to prevent serious harm?
Effect on Sleep
Sleep is more than just a favorite way to pass the night time hours and the majority of Sundays; it’s vital aspect of our health. We all know how exhausted we feel when we’ve pulled a late night, but it goes beyond fatigue. Getting a good night’s sleep strengthens our immune system, aids better calorie regulation, and even has links to our emotional intelligence.
While there are common lighting myths to be wary of, there is some truth in that the blue light projected by our screens can affect the quality of our sleep. A 2017 study found that exposure to short wavelengths of blue light disrupts the production of melanin — the hormone that helps us fall asleep. This means that those of us who use a phone, tablet, or laptop in bed can find it difficult to drift off naturally. Regular exposure to this blue light at nighttime can cause disruption to circadian rhythms, and poses a risk of more long term sleep deprivation problems.
It can be tempting to reach for a device at night time — there’s always one around, and it keeps us entertained. The National Sleep Foundation recommends setting a device curfew of 2 hours before bed, although even 30 minutes can make a difference. Substituting screens for a more analog past time, such as reading a book can help your body transition into more natural sleeping patterns.
Mental Health and Mood
There are many factors that can contribute to our ongoing mental and emotional wellbeing. We live in a world that can be rather stressful, and the aforementioned sleep deprivation certainly doesn’t help your mood. Is it any surprise that the almost inescapable presence of screens can have a detrimental effect?
A lot of focus has been placed on the potential harm extended screen time could have on children and teens. But there is some evidence to suggest that adult mental health is also at risk. Another 2017 study showed that those who use a screen for more than 6 hours each day were more likely to experience moderate or severe levels of depression. High screen use has also been linked with anxiety. The root causes for this are still being studied, but hypotheses range from frequent overstimulation, to isolating device behavior affecting our tendency to socialize. We also can’t ignore that the social media content we consume can contribute to low self-esteem and loneliness.
As is often the case, moderation is a popular solution to this issue. Interspersing time spent on devices with physical, outdoor activities in the daylight can lower stress levels and calm the nervous system, including time spent in person with family and friends. Engaging in a regular practice of mindfulness is also recommended. Activities such as meditation, yoga, and journaling can help us become more attuned to our emotional and mental state, and help us manage them accordingly.
Aside from looking down at wearable fitness trackers, screen time is not usually associated with physical exertion. That doesn’t mean that prolonged attention to screens can’t result in damage to various aspects of your physical wellbeing, however. Screen time factors into many of our daily activities, and we aren’t always attentive to our physical interactions with them.
Eyesight is one of the more obvious areas of potential harm from screen use. There are many contributing factors including exposure to blue light emitted by screens, the harshness of the ambient light in the room, and fatigue caused by prolonged focusing. If you wear glasses, it may be worth adjusting your prescription to optimize them for screen use. It is also important to take regular breaks from your screen — one ten minute break per hour of screen work is enough.
Our workplaces, homes, and study environments tend to be populated by screens, and these spaces are not always optimized for our physical health. Incorrect keyboard positioning can contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome, bad posture when sitting can cause tendonitis, there is even potential for musculoskeletal disorders. Care should be taken to create an ergonomically sound workstation, taking into account correct screen positioning, an adjustable chair, and even a mouse that relieves pressure on the wrists.
As advanced technology has developed, screens have become a ubiquitous aspect of our environment. The amount of time we spend using devices has become a frequent topic of discussion, though more research is needed to understand the long term effects. We know, however, that prolonged screen time can be detrimental to our health — from quality of sleep, to eyestrain. We must take care to take adequate precautions against potential harm, and approach our screen use with a degree of moderation.