How excessive screen time impacts our wellbeing

Young group of people standing in circle using mobile phones outside. Unrecognizable teen friends watching social media content on smartphone app. Technology lifestyle concept.
Spending hours looking at a screen has been associated with a number of health issues. (Getty Images)

Everywhere we look, we are surrounded by screens - from our mobile phones and tablets, to our laptops and computers, to televisions. Modern day living goes hand in hand with screen time, but experts are warning that spending too much time on screens can negatively impact our health in a number of ways.

A recent study found that excessive screen time was associated with metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions that occur together and increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

The research, published in the journal BMC Public Health, found that the rising prevalence of metabolic syndrome among children and adolescents can be linked to more sedentary lifestyles and screen time.

Experts say that adults should limit their screen time outside of work to under two hours a day, while children should be allowed very limited screen time of up to an hour per day.

Spending too much time looking at screens has been associated with several health issues, from worsening eye health, to bad posture, to poor mental health.

We take a closer look at how excessive screen time can impact our bodies and minds.

Woman with bad posture using smartphone while sitting on stool against light grey background
Experts say they have seen rising cases of back conditions due to poor posture while staring at screens. (Getty Images)

Research has shown that sitting down for hours at a time can wreak havoc on our posture. Often, when we’re spending time looking at a computer or our mobile phones, we spend too much time sitting down.

Jodie Breach, national physiotherapy lead at Nuffield Health, tells Yahoo UK: "Even if you sit with perfect posture, getting up and moving at least once every 30 minutes prevents the onset of numbness and fatigue."

Mr Michael Fatica, Lead Osteopath and co-founder of back rehabilitation program Back in Shape, adds that he has seen an increase in cases of kyphosis, also known as ‘hunchback’ as a result of excessive use of electronic devices.

He says he is now treating an increasing number of young patients with kyphosis. In extreme cases, this abnormal curvature of the neck and spine can lead to a hunchback posture.

"I rarely used to see young people with neck or back issues unless they had been in an accident, but changes in lifestyle are causing chronic problems which are not easily undone," says Fatica. "Kyphotic necks are caused by excessive forward-bending and unfortunately are now becoming the norm, particularly among young girls."

He blames the habit of watching TV on laptops, smartphones and tablets while propped up in bed for the rise in cases, and warns that people are in for a "lifetime of neck and back pain because of poor posture".

BARCELONA, SPAIN. At the office.
Our eye health may suffer as a result of spending long hours looking at computer screens. (Getty Images)

Eye health professionals are becoming increasingly concerned about eye strain due to the overuse of small screens and digital technology.

Eye hospital group Optegra reports that almost a fifth (19%) of adults say they get eye strain from spending too much time on screens, with 22% of women reporting headaches.

Dr Shafiq Rehman, consultant ophthalmic surgeon at Optegra, says: "As a father and a surgeon, I am concerned at the volume of time we are all spending on screens. Not only is daylight vital for the healthy growth of the eye but screens and too much time online can have a real impact on eyes.

"However, it is a myth that tablets, PlayStations and computers damage eyes – they don’t. But because we are concentrating on the screens we only blink three or four times a minute, rather than the normal 20 to 30. This makes the eyes dry out."

Dr Laura de Benito, consultant ophthalmic surgeon at OCL Vision, advises using the 20/20/20 rule to avoid vision problems.

"Give regular breaks to your eyes," she says. "Follow the 20/20/20 rule: every 20 minutes, stop for at least 20 seconds and look at something that is 20 feet away. This will not only allow you to relax your eye muscles but will also make you blink and avoid them getting dry from long hours at the computer."

A man is lying in bed in total darkness looking at his smart phone. Lifestyle concept
Many of us are guilty of scrolling on our phones in bed right before going to sleep. (Getty Images)

Experts have long warned against using screens right before going to sleep, as the light from your mobile phone or tablet might disrupt your sleep cycle.

However, Dr Lindsay Browning, psychologist and sleep expert at And So To Bed, explains that screen light may not be the culprit for bad sleep, but we should all still be putting our phones down for at least an hour before bed.

"Although very recent research has suggested that use of screens and technology before bed itself may not be as harmful for sleep as once thought (bright light especially in the blue frequency is thought to only have a negligible impact on falling asleep), if we use screens for doing work, we may become stressed before bed, and if we use them for social media then we may delay bedtime through scrolling past our planned bedtime," she says.

"Stopping using our phones an hour before bed enables us to do something less stressful or less potentially distracting that we forget to go to bed. Our brains need to be calm in order to fall asleep and if we spend the hour before bed on our phones working then we may be too anxious with adrenaline and cortisol pumping through our bodies keeping us awake.

"The hour gap between work and sleep is a helpful time period to allow our brains and bodies to calm down so that falling asleep is easier."

Woman looking at mobile phone screen
Prolonged screen time has been linked to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. (Getty Images)

Spending too much time using screens usually means we are constantly online and consuming social media content, which has been linked to mental health problems like depression and anxiety.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh published a study earlier this year that revealed teenages whose screen time increases as they go through adolescence raise the risk of mental health problems later in life.

They wrote that young people who spent progressively more time online were more likely to be depressed, anxious, or to self-harm at the age of 20.

Looking at our screens all the time also means we spend less time connecting with one another, which negatively impacts our mood, says psychotherapist and author Eloise Skinner.

She explains: "We know from research that one of the biggest predictors of sustainable wellbeing over a long period of time is the quality of our connections with others. When we're excessively engaging with our devices, we can lose the opportunity to notice, engage with and deepen connections with those around us - even people we might not consider to be close friends or family members.

"This is true even if we consider ourselves to be socialising digitally - research suggests that in-person connections carry greater boosts to mood when compared to digital interactions."

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