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Understanding the Impact of Screen Time

Jun 3, 2024 | Blog, Lifestyle

Electronics play a huge role in our everyday lives in today’s increasingly online world. From Zoom meetings to scrolling through news and social media feeds, the average North American spends around 6 hours looking at a screen daily! However, excessive screen time can have major repercussions on our health, including sleep, eye health, and overall physical well-being. 

 

Cutting back on screen time is an excellent idea if you want to improve your overall health. Keep reading to learn more about the negative effects of prolonged screen exposure and tips for reducing electronic use. 

 

Screen Time and Sleep Disruption 

 

Several studies have found that screen use at bedtime leads to lower sleep quality. 

This is because the blue light emitted from screens disrupts our circadian rhythm, aka the body’s biological clock that regulates our alertness and sleep cycles. 

 

Our bodies are wired to associate sleep with darkness and light with wakefulness, following the natural rise and fall of the sun each day. However, the proliferation of screens has meant that we are exposed to light for more hours than our bodies are used to. 

 

Exposure to any kind of light suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin, and studies suggest that the blue light emitted from cell phones and computers does so even more powerfully than red or green light.

 

What does this mean for our sleep and overall health? Spending time on screens before going to bed can lead to difficulty falling and staying asleep because the light tricks our brains into thinking that it’s time to be awake. Our bodies need restorative sleep to thrive. Not getting enough sleep or having poor quality sleep is associated with several health problems, such as heart disease, obesity, and a weakened immune system, among others. 

 

Digital Eye Strain & Fatigue 

 

People who spend prolonged periods looking at screens may experience digital eye strain, a condition characterized by:

 

  • Fatigue
  • Dry eyes 
  • Blurred vision 
  • Headaches 
  • Irritation, such as burning, itching, or watery eyes 

 

This occurs because staring at a computer or cell phone screen makes the eyes work harder. We also tend to blink less when looking at screens, so our eyes don’t get as much moisture. According to the American Optometric Association, just two hours of continuous screen use is enough to bring about symptoms of digital eye strain. 

 

Although digital eye strain has not been found to produce permanent damage to the eye, its uncomfortable symptoms can affect one’s overall mood and performance at work and home. 

 

Physical Health Effects of Screen Time

 

When screen time replaces time spent performing physical activities and engaging with the real world, several negative health effects can occur. Sedentary lifestyles are associated with an increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions. 

 

Our bodies require regular movement and social interaction to release and maintain adequate doses of feel-good hormones like dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin. From an evolutionary perspective, humans were designed to move and engage in all kinds of physical activity throughout the day – this was essential to our survival as a species. The modern world has enabled us to sit more and move less, leading to profound negative changes in our health. 

Establishing boundaries and incorporating healthy habits are essential to minimizing the adverse effects of screen time. These include limiting screen time before bedtime, using blue light filters or glasses, taking regular breaks to rest your eyes, and engaging in physical activity to counteract sedentary behaviors.

 

Mitigating the Impacts of Screen Time on Health

 

While we cannot completely omit screens in our modern life, there are several ways we can mitigate the negative impacts of screen time on our health, including improving sleep hygiene, limiting digital eye strain, and increasing physical activity. Here are some helpful tips to consider.

 

Prioritizing Sleep Hygiene

 

Restful sleep is foundational for optimal health. While nobody wants to suffer the health consequences of sleep deprivation, in today’s busy world, it can be challenging to close your laptop at the end of the night or stop scrolling. This is why we recommend creating a strong sleep hygiene routine to promote a good night’s rest. 

 

Here’s what it can look like: 

 

    • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. If you are the type to jump out of bed at 7:00 am to get to work on Friday but then spend Saturday sleeping until noon, you may be throwing off your circadian rhythm. A consistent sleep schedule means our bodies know when to produce melatonin naturally. Studies have also associated irregular sleeping patterns with nearly double the risk of cardiovascular disease. 
    • Optimize your sleeping environment. For most people, a cool, dark, and quiet room is the ideal setting for deep sleep. If your bedroom is too hot, a fan may be a good investment, along with a good-quality mattress and pillows! Ultimately, making the space comfortable and relaxing will go a long way in promoting deep sleep. Here’s where it gets tough, though: an optimal sleeping environment does not include screens! Try placing your phone and laptop in a completely different room where you won’t access them until the morning. It may be challenging at first, but swapping your nightly scroll or TV show for screen-free relaxation techniques, such as reading or meditation, can make a world of difference in your sleep and overall health.
    • Practice healthy habits. One of the best ways to ensure you sleep well is to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and heavily processed foods before bed. Other healthy habits, like exercising throughout the day, can help your sleep, too! Studies have shown that adults who exercised for at least 30 minutes a day slept an average of 15 minutes longer than those who did not exercise. Just be careful not to exercise too close to bedtime, as the endorphins could keep you up! 

 

Tips for Healthy, Hydrated Eyes

 

Eye strain is a common, uncomfortable symptom that results from the daily use of digital screens. Thankfully, you can greatly reduce the frequency of headaches and dry eyes by introducing these habits into your day-to-day: 

 

    • Look away from the screen. Often, we experience eye strain from staring at a screen for too long without a break. We recommend shifting your focus to something other than the screen every 20 minutes, and what you focus on should be 20 feet away. You should look at it for at least 20 seconds. This is known as the 20-20-20 rule and is effective for giving your eyes a much-needed break from screens. If you work on a computer all day, walk in natural light during lunch. Allow your eyes to fixate on the natural environment; don’t just switch to a different screen! 
    • Invest in blue light filters or glasses. These can help reduce eye strain, headaches, and exposure to sleep-disrupting light. 
    • Eat a diet that supports your eye health. Along with the right screen habits, our eyes need certain nutrients to function at their best. Incorporating the following foods into your diet can help protect your vision: 
      • Leafy greens: Spinach, kale, and Swiss chard are rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants that protect the eyes.
      • Carrots: High in beta-carotene, essential for good vision and eye health.
      • Citrus fruits: Rich in vitamin C, supporting blood vessel health in the eyes.
      • Berries: Blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries contain antioxidants that protect the eyes from damage.
      • Fatty fish: Salmon, mackerel, and sardines provide omega-3 fatty acids, supporting eye health.
      • Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, and flaxseeds contain vitamin E and omega-3s for eye health.
      • Eggs: Rich in lutein, zeaxanthin, and vitamins A and E, supporting eye health.
      • Bell peppers: High in vitamin C and beta-carotene, promoting eye health.
      • Sweet potatoes: Rich in beta-carotene and vitamin E, supporting eye health.
      • Legumes: Beans, lentils, and peas provide zinc and bioflavonoids, protecting the eyes from damage.

 

 

Don’t Settle for Sedentary 

 

There’s a reason sitting has been termed the new smoking – a sedentary lifestyle is a major risk factor for several chronic diseases. While living an active lifestyle is not easy, it is more than worthwhile for your overall health. Here’s what we recommend: 

  • Take regular breaks. If you work from home or in an office, this tip is for you. Try setting a timer to remind yourself to get up and move every 30-60 minutes. Even small bouts of activity can go a long way in improving your overall health. 
  • Incorporate movement. Find every opportunity to get your body moving! From walking or riding your bike to work to pacing around the office during a phone call, there are so many opportunities to do something other than sitting—you just have to take advantage of them! 
  • Make fitness fun. Finding motivation to exercise can be challenging, especially when endless entertainment is available at the swipe of a button. Finding a physical activity that you genuinely enjoy and feel excited about is important. Look into local fitness classes or outdoor recreation opportunities to keep you moving and having fun. 

Whether we like it or not, screens are all around us. Many of us forget to look away from the constant stream of entertainment to prioritize our health. 

 

The bottom line is that staring at screens all day long has adverse effects on the human body. It can disrupt sleep, irritate eyesight, and diminish physical vitality. 

 

This doesn’t mean staying away from screens forever but learning to evolve with technology in a way that doesn’t harm our health. We’ve reviewed a few things you can do to build healthy screen habits and improve your sleep, vision, and physical well-being. For more tips and guidance on reducing screen time, feel free to contact us – we can help you embrace a more balanced lifestyle!

 

Sources

 

Hale L, Kirschen GW, LeBourgeois MK, Gradisar M, Garrison MM, Montgomery-Downs H, Kirschen H, McHale SM, Chang AM, Buxton OM. Youth Screen Media Habits and Sleep: Sleep-Friendly Screen Behavior Recommendations for Clinicians, Educators, and Parents. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2018 Apr;27(2):229-245. doi: 10.1016/j.chc.2017.11.014. PMID: 29502749; PMCID: PMC5839336.

 

Silvani MI, Werder R, Perret C. The influence of blue light on sleep, performance and wellbeing in young adults: A systematic review. Front Physiol. 2022 Aug 16;13:943108. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2022.943108. PMID: 36051910; PMCID: PMC9424753.

 

Medic G, Wille M, Hemels ME. Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Nat Sci Sleep. 2017 May 19;9:151-161. doi: 10.2147/NSS.S134864. PMID: 28579842; PMCID: PMC5449130.

 

Kaur K, Gurnani B, Nayak S, Deori N, Kaur S, Jethani J, Singh D, Agarkar S, Hussaindeen JR, Sukhija J, Mishra D. Digital Eye Strain- A Comprehensive Review. Ophthalmol Ther. 2022 Oct;11(5):1655-1680. doi: 10.1007/s40123-022-00540-9. Epub 2022 Jul 9. PMID: 35809192; PMCID: PMC9434525.

 

Park JH, Moon JH, Kim HJ, Kong MH, Oh YH. Sedentary Lifestyle: Overview of Updated Evidence of Potential Health Risks. Korean J Fam Med. 2020 Nov;41(6):365-373. doi: 10.4082/kjfm.20.0165. Epub 2020 Nov 19. PMID: 33242381; PMCID: PMC7700832.

 

American Optometric Association, “Computer Eye Syndrome,” https://www.aoa.org/healthy-eyes/eye-and-vision-conditions/computer-vision-syndrome?ss0=y&sso=y

 

Huang T, Mariani S, Redline S. Sleep Irregularity and Risk of Cardiovascular Events: The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2020 Mar 10;75(9):991-999. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2019.12.054. PMID: 32138974; PMCID: PMC7237955.

 

Alnawwar MA, Alraddadi MI, Algethmi RA, Salem GA, Salem MA, Alharbi AA. The Effect of Physical Activity on Sleep Quality and Sleep Disorder: A Systematic Review. Cureus. 2023 Aug 16;15(8):e43595. doi: 10.7759/cureus.43595. PMID: 37719583; PMCID: PMC10503965.

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