How much screen time is healthy for adults?


Most of us don’t like the idea of allowing young children to spend long hours watching TV or playing games on a smartphone. Conventional wisdom agrees that too much screen time can’t be good for growing children and that there should be limits in place, but where do we draw the line for ourselves?

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As adults, we wouldn’t hesitate to protect our children from screen addiction, laziness and the risk of anti-social behaviour, but we must realise that we aren’t immune to such problems either. Too much screen time is as big an issue to adults as it is to our children and we can be at a much higher risk to screen addiction than we realise. There's nobody to regulate our screen time, so self-regulation is a must!

Tell-tale signs you’re addicted to your device

Studies and statistics prove that across the world, many adults are falling into a screen-obsessed lifestyle. For us Singaporeans, more than half the adult population admitted to internet addiction in a study conducted by AIA, making us one of the most screen-addicted nations in the region.

We spend at least 6 hours on the computer doing work, and an additional average of almost 4 hours on leisure usage – surfing social media, watching Netflix or even random web searches to entertain ourselves in the middle of work. The impulse to unlock your phone or open a new tab the moment you start feeling restless is one big indicator that you may be addicted to your digital devices. There are also other signs of addiction – some obvious while others are subtle.

  • Anxiety when your phone or computer doesn’t work

    That uneasy sensation when the Wi-Fi is lagging or the irritation you feel when a webpage takes too long to load? These feelings are all too familiar to many of us and we tend to experience it on a daily basis. Spending time away from the phone is the worst of all – some of us can’t bear the feeling of not being able to check our notifications for even a minute to the point that we carry our phones into the toilets with us (and even use it in the cubicles – but you can keep that a secret).
  • Trouble finishing work and meeting deadlines

    An addiction to our devices means our attention is inevitably diverted away from work. If you often find yourself opening another browser to do leisure surfing while working, chances are that you’ll find yourself having trouble keeping to deadlines and finishing your work as scheduled. Dwindling productivity and motivation are some of the surest signs of an internet addiction that’s getting out of hand.
  • Physical aches and tired eyes

    Spending long hours at a desk or with your head bowed down to look at your phone doesn’t feel uncomfortable when you’re doing it, but you may find yourself experiencing unexplained muscle aches. If you aren't physically active yet experience an ache somewhere that just won’t go away, it’s highly likely that you’re spending too much time on your digital screens. Tired, dry eyes are also another sign that you’re spending too much time facing these screens and not moving around and being active enough.
  • Awareness and guilt

    When you’re aware that you should be doing something else instead of being online and you can’t shake off the guilt for not spending more time being social or productive, your mind is probably subconsciously hinting that there is a better use for your time. Don’t ignore these feelings – avoidance will only escalate the guilt. Instead, face them head on.
  • Strained relationships

    Skipping too many social gatherings or excessive usage of your phone at the dinner table can strain relationships. Your family and friends may feel like you aren’t treating them as a priority and end up feeling alienated. It may be time to reconsider your screen time usage when the people that are supposed to be closest to you start becoming more distant.

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Not all of us have fallen into the deep trap of internet addiction, but the nature of our work and modern lifestyle makes us extremely vulnerable to becoming addicted. How bad can wanting and having too much screen time really be though? We’re on our computers to do work so it can’t be that bad, right? Due to the role that adults play in working society, recommendations for screen time aren't as straightforward as they would be with children or youths.

As a result, it may be more practical to think in terms of how your time spent with screens affects your daily essentials. Are you getting enough sleep, exercise or outdoor time? If your screen time has you missing meals on a regular basis (regardless if it's due to work or not), then it's high time that you find a way to dial things back.

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What too much screen time does to you?

  • You become more unfit

    Using digital devices robs you of the time you can spend exercising and being physically active. Consequently, your fitness levels decline and you may find yourself getting breathless more easily even when you partake in basic activities like walking or climbing the stairs.
  • Your health is put at risk

    Beyond the noticeable drop in fitness levels, your health is also impacted by the lack of exercise due to the weakening of your immune system and other functions. Not only will you be more susceptible to viruses and infections, you may also be at greater risk of long-term health diseases like diabetes.
  • You get less sleep

    Too much time on the screens makes it harder for you to fall asleep when it’s bedtime. Studies have found that Singapore is one of the most sleep-deprived nations and that millennials are the biggest contributors to the statistics. The blue light from your screens disrupts your melatonin levels and leads to extended periods of wakefulness. The mental stimulation from processing online content also keeps your brain alert – way too alert for sleeping.
  • Your mental health suffers

    Perhaps it’s the lack of proper socialising when you spend more time on social media than actually hanging out with real people or perhaps spending long hours alone with no companion save for a screen accentuates feelings of loneliness. Whatever the reason is, research has found links between internet addiction and symptoms of depressive disorders like anxiety and depression. Self-esteem levels are also lower in people who spend more time on using digital devices and this leads to lower life satisfaction.
  • Other unhealthy addictions are exacerbated

    It’s easy to pin the bulk of the blame on social media for being the cause of internet and screen addiction. But one of the reasons why people spend so much time on their devices is because the internet facilitates the transaction of other addictive activities, such as gaming, shopping and gambling. The lack of discipline when it comes to screen time will only exacerbate such a situation.

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Too much screen time is bad for both physical and mental health in adults. With children, the concerns are focused on the fact that their brains are still developing and how excess screen time might affect development. While this issue doesn't apply that well to adults, screen time has a unique consequence on older individuals: it reduces our productivity and limits our capacity to live a quality life. Whether your screen addiction is mild or heavy, it’s time to fight the effects and restrict the time you spend on your devices.

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How to minimise the negative effects of too much screen time?

Spending long hours staring at the screen because you’re doing work is inevitable, but you don’t have to live with the full impact of the consequences. It’s possible to address some of the negative effects of insomnia, stress and poor health with the following lifestyle changes:

  • Help yourself sleep better by practicing good sleep hygiene

    Maintaining a regular bedtime routine and ensuring your bedroom is a conducive place for sleep are some of the good habits you should adopt in having good sleep hygiene. The most important thing to do if you want to sleep better is to not let your digital devices interfere with your sleep routine (even if it’s a regular behaviour). Keep sources of blue light away from you and power down your devices an hour before bedtime.
  • Have more real-life social interactions

    It’s easy to spend mealtime watching the TV or checking your social media feed, but put that aside and make mealtimes an occasion for proper family or friend face-time. Talking to people will make the virtual world seem more distant and help you focus on what’s real.
  • Adopt a more active lifestyle

    To fight the toll that too much screen time takes on your fitness levels, you can choose to literally switch your lifestyle around and get more physical. Do as much walking as you can and take breaks in between bouts of work to stretch your legs and move around. Simple and light physical activities can significantly reduce feelings of stress and fight off mental disorders. Where possible, try to incorporate some simple workouts into your weekly schedule. Find some activities that suit your lifestyle and that you actually enjoy – you can explore these and get tips on whether the activities are suitable for your lifestyle in the long run at our Active Health Labs.
  • Reduce your screen time

    If you have trouble telling yourself when to take a break, set some alarms that go off at specific intervals to remind yourself to take a breather and look away from the screen. Let your eyes move away from the screen every 30 minutes. Take a walk every 2-3 hours. Also, don’t use your phone or computer when you’re eating as it interrupts digestion and could become a bad habit that feeds the addiction problem. The same holds true for taking your phone to the toilet with you!

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Adults and children alike both face negative consequences from too much screen time but there’s a huge difference to keep in mind. Children don’t understand why they have to stop; they just want to enjoy themselves. Adults have the capacity to reflect on their actions and come to terms with whether they're are spending too much time on their devices.

We also have the ability to decide to cut back on our screen time and make changes to our lifestyle to facilitate our goals. As adults, the buck stops with us so it's up to the grown-ups to lead by example and not let such unhealthy trends carry over to the next generation!

For more useful resources and workshops, check out these links below:

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Topics: Screen Time, Rest Better