HealthAgenda

Mental Health

Is screen time harming your health?

How to stop being distracted by your digital devices and start a healthy relationship with technology.

Health Agenda magazine 
July 2017

If you ever wondered if you spend too much time on your phone, the answer is probably yes. Every day we're learning – ironically, on our digital devices – more and more about the adverse effects on our health, from excessive screen time, to disrupted sleep patterns and increased stress levels.

People who are ‘constant checkers’ of digital devices have a higher level of stress than those who spend less time on gadgets, according to an American Psychological Association report in February 2017.

There’s also evidence that this constant checking is having a detrimental effect on our relationships, leaving us – somewhat counterintuitively – less connected from the people around us. In fact, researchers at the University of Essex in the UK in 2012 found that simply having a phone nearby, without even checking it, can be detrimental to our communication with the people who are physically in front of us.

Why do we love technology so much?

According to psychologists, our love for technology is a compulsion driven by dopamine (an organic chemical in the brain associated with rewards). At the extreme end it can lead to what the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction in the US classifies as ‘addiction’, but even those of us who think our use is ‘normal’ might be in for a shock when we look at how much time we spend on our digital devices.

A 2016 study by advisory service EY found the average Australian mobile user spends more than 10 hours a day engaged with it and 23% spend more time on their phones than talking to their partner or friends.

Content and context matters

Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer, founder of Digital Nutrition, says time spent on a device is not a problem in itself, it’s what we do on it. She says it’s helpful to think of digital consumption like a balanced diet.

“Digital nutrition is really about thinking ‘what’s in the content that we consume?’ It’s not just your use of Facebook, for example, but the hashtags and content you follow.”

For many people, the internet’s ready accessibility has brought with it a sense of community, and this can be particularly helpful for people undergoing crises. Someone with, say, an eating disorder can find online tools, inspiration and forums that can help their recovery.

But it can be a double-edged sword, says Brewer. A simple ‘before’ picture of the writer when unwell may be enough to trigger harmful behaviour. And while eating disorders and body image issues pre-date devices, the skewed ideals that used to exist on the pages of magazines are now available all the time, in the palm of your hand. This means even if you’re not looking for anything you might consider harmful, it can still find you.

It’s not just eating disorders. Anxieties about finances, world events, traumas, even phobias can all be exacerbated online. In 2016 Childline, a free kids’ helpline in the UK, reported the number of children seeking help for anxiety had risen by 35% from the previous year, with many young people telling counsellors that disturbing events on social media such as the US election and the conflict in Syria were the source of their worries.

“The thing with a news feed is you’re being force-fed information you’re not necessarily choosing,” says Brewer. Even a trigger warning, which alerts people to potentially distressing content, can act as a trigger itself.

Screen vs sleep

An unhealthy relationship with technology has a role in sleep deprivation, too, adds Dr Chris Seton, paediatric and adolescent sleep physician at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research. “Our data shows 70% of teenagers are sleep deprived.” Sleep deprivation affects cognitive ability and can contribute to obesity, depression and high blood pressure.

According to a Spanish study published in the journal PLoS Biology in 2013, when you engage with technology, dopamine is released and wakes up the brain. And research from the University of Toronto, Canada, reveals the blue light from screens suppresses the brain’s sleep hormone, melatonin. Additionally, says Dr Seton, “If you do something in your bed that’s not associated with sleep, over time your brain associates your bed with wakeful activity.”

Is there an off button?

Should we just turn off? For most of us that’s not realistic. A far better option is to change our relationship with our devices. Brewer says half the challenge is our lack of awareness about how technology negatively affects us.

“We think, ‘I’m staying up to date.’ But what are we losing? A whole bunch of attention, a bunch of cognitive load.”

Both Brewer and Seton say moderation is key. They recommend:

  • limiting screen time, particularly in the hour before bedtime
  • removing devices from the bedroom
  • consider using apps and programs with timers and blockers, such as Blacklist and AntiSocial
  • start using the ‘unfollow’, ‘block’ or ‘defriend’ buttons on social media. The fewer posts and updates you receive, the less material you’ll feel compelled to scroll through
  • be mindful of your actions and ask yourself, “What does this actually contribute to my life? Does it have some sort of purpose?”

Digital Nutrition

Digital nutrition encourages us to think about the way we use technology and how it impacts our health – like a balanced diet.

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