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How much screen time is too much?

May 11, 2020 | UCI Health
Mother and child focus on the screens of their electronic devices

How many hours each day do you and your kids spend staring at screens? How about each week?

The number was probably high even before school and work closures, shelter-in-place and social-distancing measures were adopted to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

With so many of us now telecommuting for work, children learning their lessons remotely and online socializing taking the place of much of our person-to-person interactions, the number of hours we spend staring at electronic screen devices no doubt has grown exponentially.

While long hours of staring at screens may be unavoidable, it may lead to negative physical and psychological side effects — especially in children — unless checked, UCI Health physicians say. 

Physical effects

When people focus on screens — be they computer screens, television screens, tablets or smartphones — they are engaging in what is known as near work, says UCI Health pediatric ophthalmologist Dr. Charlotte Gore at the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute.

"Studies suggest that the more time you spend on near work, the higher chance you have of getting myopia, or near-sightedness,” says Gore, who also is an assistant professor in the UCI School of Medicine's Department of Ophthalmology.

It may also lead to general eye strain and fatigue, not unlike the effect of carrying heavy weights would have on the upper body. She advises giving our eyes the same rest we would for any other overtaxed muscles.

“When doing near work, you need to take a break and let your eyes relax,” says Gore. “Otherwise, you overtire them.”

Prolonged periods staring at a screen also causes us  to blink less, which results in dryness, irritation, excessive tears, a burning sensation and, often, headaches.

Eye fatigue isn’t the only problem associated with screen time. Sleep specialists recommend avoiding all LED screens and monitors for at least an hour before bed because it tends to stimulate our minds, making it harder to fall asleep.

Psychological effects on young people

The adverse effects of screen time are particularly hard on children and teenagers, who, thanks to remote learning, now rely on screens not only to complete assignments, but for  instruction as well.

“On average, children in the United States between the ages of 8 and 12 were already spending anywhere from four to six hours a day watching or using screens,” says UCI Health psychiatrist Dr. Paramjit Joshi. “With teenagers, it was even greater than that.”

This sedentary lifestyle takes an immediate physical toll on young people by increasing the risk for obesity and the subsequent body image issues that come with it, says Joshi, who is a professor of clinical psychiatry at the UCI School of Medicine.

In addition, there may be a number of long-term psychological and social effects that parents may not realize.

First and foremost, excessive screen time can lead to a lack of socialization, Joshi says. Even more than adults do, children need to be around their peers. Sudden isolation of the kind children are experiencing during this COVID-19 crisis may lead to anxiety and depression.

This especially true for children who have a hard time fitting in at school, such as those who face bullying or performance anxiety. Such a child may welcome being at home, but Joshi warns that the longer social-distancing measures continue, the more difficult it may be for the child to re-acclimate once school resumes.

Tips to managing screen time

Adults may be aware of the detrimental effects of too much screen time, but unsure what counter measures they can take. Luckily, there are many things they can do, starting with giving their eyes routine breaks.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends taking a 20-second break from computer screens for every 20 minutes we use them. For periods of work and study requiring extended screen time, Gore encourages people to set timers or electronic placeholders on their devices.

Keep artificial tears handy to hydrate the eyes. These should be applied immediately before working at a screen and reapplied during each break period, she says.

Guidelines for children are trickier, especially given that some of the increased screen time is for schooling. Joshi suggests curtailing leisure time in front of screens and encouraging physical activities. “Children need to be able to participate in other things.” 

For many families, that’s easier said than done given that not everyone has access to a yard, play rooms or materials. Some alternative activities to consider include: 

  • Exercise, either indoors or outdoors (while being careful to adhere to masking and social-distancing measures when encountering people beyond the immediate family)
  • Board and parlor games
  • Imaginative play
  • Arts and crafts
  • Traditional reading (books and magazines)

Just as for adults, screens for children should be turned off at least 60 minutes before bedtime, as well as during meals, which will help to encourage social interactions.

Parents and caregivers should also be extra mindful about not using screen-based entertainments as emotional pacifiers or rewards, says Joshi.

“Most important, we need to acknowledge the unusual circumstances we are in right now. I don't want parents to feel guilty their kids are spending a lot of time on screens,” she says. “We just need to encourage them to try a little more creative activities while we are all confined at home.”

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