SALT LAKE CITY — Staying home has many of us spending more time on our electronic devices than normal. While technology is allowing people to connect and work in ways like never before, too much screen time can have a negative impact on our overall health.
KSL health specialist Aley Davis found this was the case for herself:
A couple weeks ago I went to bed with tense shoulders and a sharp headache. Then I realized I started and ended my day with my phone in hand, and that was just the beginning.
After spending 30 minutes in bed looking at the messages and notifications I missed overnight, I headed for the basement. Normally I exercise at the gym, but recently I've been grabbing the remote for an at-home YouTube workout on my TV. Although it helps me stay active, I’m glued to the screen to follow every jump, tuck and burpee.
After getting ready for the day, I turn on my computer to work for eight hours staring at a screen. For dinner, I pull out my computer to look up an online recipe, and then — you guessed it — more screen time. Lately, my husband and I have been video chatting friends to play online games.
Before you know it, I'm winding down for bed reading, checking emails, social media and the news once again.
When I realized so much screen time was affecting my health, I took my concerns to a doctor — virtually, that is.
"Screen time is by and large equivalent to sedentary time," said Dr. Elizabeth Joy, senior medical director of wellness and nutrition at Intermountain Healthcare’s LiVe Well Center.
Joy admits she’s even spending significantly more time on screens than prior to the pandemic. "We’re on Zoom calls for work, Zoom calls with friends, we’re connecting on our iPhone. I’m even doing patient care on my phone," Joy said.
Digital eye strain is just one of the many side effects of too much screen time.
"We are focused on a certain focal length for the entire day," she said. "We are sitting about 30 inches, maybe 25 inches away from a screen all day long without breaking up kind of those visual fields."
She said screen time often results in poor posture causing several musculoskeletal problems for people — like headaches, shoulder pain, and back pain.
"When we're on our screens we are sitting, we're not standing, we're not walking," she said. "Sitting is really what causes the bulk of those problem."
She said when people are looking at a screen they usually poke their neck and chin forward, causing the weight of their head to put tension on their back and neck.
Joy has found using a treadmill desk has helped her keep an upright posture which significantly reduced her shoulder and upper back discomfort.
Joy said research shows sitting for too long is independently associated with an increased risk of premature mortality, regardless of how much physical activity someone engages in. "Meaning that 30 minutes on your elliptical trainer didn't undo the detrimental effects of sitting all day," she explained.
She encourages people to move more throughout the day to avoid prolonged sitting and encourages adults to get 30-60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day, and 60 minutes for kids.
Joy recognizes not all screen time is bad. "We're seeing higher reported levels of anxiety and depression. So being able to use our screens, whether it's through FaceTime or Zoom calls, I think is really important to stay connected with friends and family."
But Joy says too much can also have a negative impact on mental health, especially for kids and teens.
"There are concerns that … more screen time is associated with a higher likelihood of depressive symptoms and even suicidal thoughts," she said. "There are studies showing that kids are spending up to six to seven hours a day between Snapchat and Instagram and watching shows on screens."
She said the solution is to find ways to break things up throughout the day and be intentional about doing something other than looking at a screen.
Joy encourages parents to schedule outdoor or playtime for their kids away from devices. She says the same goes for adults.
"For adults, it's about having some boundaries," she said. "When there is no boundary, that definitely creates increased stress and strain on one's mental and emotional wellbeing."
She suggests playing the piano or putting on some music and taking the dog for a walk.
Joy acknowledges that during a pandemic like this, it's OK to be a little more lenient in allowing more screen time than normal, but people should find ways for their kids and themselves to take a break.
For ideas on how to stay active at home, check out Intermountain Healthcare’s Healthy At Home resources.