Ding. Almost instinctively, you reach for your phone to open up the notification. For many of us, phones and games are almost like an addiction, picking up our phones and checking them so frequently that we don’t pay any attention to our behavior and future impacts. 

The research and impacts

According to John A. Sheehan, M.D. in physiatry from Kaiser Permanente Hawaii, much of the research on screen time focuses on kids, though excessive use can also have negative impacts on adults too. Much of screen time is attributed to the use of electronic devices. Over a span of 20 years, smartphones and games have become very sophisticated, and with every update, we appear to become more dependent or addicted. Our usage is connected to almost every aspect of our lives such as computer work, mobile applications for just about anything and even recreational use. Sheehan mentioned that some estimate that U.S. adults now spend roughly 11 hours a day staring at digital devices compared to the 9 hour and 32-minute estimate four years before.

It is not only our cellular phones that contribute to body strains; watching television or playing games for extended periods of time make it difficult to set limits on our usage. Consequently, we become more sedentary, which can lead to health risks such as weight gain and heart disease. Some studies have correlated hours spent sitting to high blood pressure and pre-diabetes. 

The eyes are chiefly impacted by the extended use of devices.

“Eye muscles can become strained from focusing in on a near range for too long. Some people also develop ‘computer vision syndrome’ as a result of staring at a screen for an extended period of time. Symptoms like dry eyes, blurred vision and headaches are usually reported. The compelling nature of phones and the content on our phones can also lead to less sleep, which can have physical and psychological effects,” Sheehan said.

The research regarding children gives us insight into the effects leading up to adulthood. Sheehan said that too much screen time can hinder physical, cognitive and emotional development in children. As they become young adults, digital device usage can be linked to sleep problems, neck pain and even hand and wrist pain. Poor posture, sometimes called “text neck,” can lead to wear-and-tear on the spine and early degeneration. As an adult, this type of repetitive behavior can cause major issues. Repetitive use injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome or tendinitis are signals that your body might be feeling effects of prolonged gadget use.

Positioning yourself for screen time

There is no definitive number for “healthy” screen time or gaming, but it is important to be aware of how much time you spend using screens and the impacts it has on your body. Although it might be unavoidable to use computers for school or work, the way we position our bodies matters and can improve our overall well-being.  Sheehan advises for good ergonomics, starting with a chair that provides good lumbar support to keep your ears, shoulders and hips in alignment. Next, your monitor should be positioned just below eye level and be used sitting up straight with your shoulders relaxed and elbows close to your body. When using a mobile, handheld device, holding it closer to eye level is recommended. A feature to help reduce the likelihood of carpal tunnel is to utilize the built-in speech-to-text feature to avoid repetitive finger motions. Regular posture checks and flexibility exercises can help ease pain and tension.  

Strategies to reduce and limit screen time

Sheehan suggests taking a break from using digital devices every 15 minutes. During this intermission, you should shift your weight, stand up, sit down and readjust your body. Schedule downtime away from electronics as well; many devices allow you to set a limit on screen time and to monitor your phone usage. 

He also emphasizes the importance of being involved in fun physical activities to take time away from the screen, as well as making mealtimes and bedrooms screen-free.

“Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing reoccurring pain, numbness or weakness in any part of your body. Sometimes the root of the problem is right in your hands,” Sheehan said.