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May 9, 2022 11:49 AM EDT

The COVID-19 pandemic shifted our lives in myriad ways, including the amount of time we spent glued to our devices. Research published in 2021 found that Americans in their early twenties used their phones an average of 28.5 hours per week in 2020—up from 25.9 hours per week in 2018. One review of studies conducted in 2020 and 2021 put the estimates even higher, finding that average screen time for adults in the U.S. and other countries increased 60–80% from before the pandemic.

Excessive screen time has been shown to have negative effects on children and adolescents. It’s been linked to psychological problems, such as higher rates of depression and anxiety, as well as health issues like poor sleep and higher rates of obesity. Many researchers believe that excessive screen use may not be as damaging to adults, but the impact hasn’t been studied as extensively. Recent research has found that it can still have damaging consequences, such as digital eye strain, impaired sleep, and worsened mental health.

So, how much screen time is too much for adults? That’s the wrong question, experts say. The content you’re consuming actually matters more than the overall time you spend on your phone, says Yalda T. Uhls, an assistant adjunct professor of psychology at UCLA and former movie executive who studies the health effects of screen time. Watching a documentary on your phone, for instance, doesn’t have the same impact as mindlessly scrolling Instagram.

“What researchers have been saying for the past 10 to 15 years is that what’s challenging about the time-limit focus is that it takes away from the content conversation, and the content conversation should be what we are leading with,” she says.

That’s why you shouldn’t necessarily freak out if your weekly iPhone screen-time report pings you with a high number, says Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician, epidemiologist, and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, who has studied screen time in all age groups. The total amount of screen time isn’t as important as the breakdown of how you spent it, he says. Many experts have found that time spent on social media apps is most concerning. “We can’t simply count all screen time as the same,” Christakis says. “Look at things you think of as being entirely recreational or entirely a waste of your time, and ask yourself, is there a way that time could have been better spent?”

If you feel as though your screen time has become excessive, Uhls recommends asking yourself five important questions:

  1. Are you sleeping well?
  2. Are you eating well?
  3. Are you leaving the house and being social?
  4. Is your work going well?
  5. Are you physically active?

“If all of these things are happening, then I wouldn’t worry about your screen time,” Uhls says.

Many experts avoid offering universal screen-time time limits, but here are some general, research-informed guidelines to follow.

Limit social media to 30-60 minutes per day for better mental health

For years, research has pointed to social media as the most troublesome type of content. A study published in 2018 in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology looked at how Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat affected the mental health of 143 college students. If these young people showed depressive symptoms at the start of the study, then reduced their social-media use to just 10 minutes per day on each platform—a total of 30 minutes on social media per day—for three weeks, their symptoms of depression and loneliness decreased.

Study author Melissa Hunt, associate director of clinical training in the department of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has since conducted two follow-up studies. One, published in 2021, found that college students who used social media for 30 minutes per day—what the researchers described as a “modest” amount of time—had the highest well-being compared to those who either didn’t use social media at all or who used it excessively. “They’re the most connected, the least lonely, the least depressed compared to people who use way too much, but also compared to people who use none,” she says.

Hunt says that her second, forthcoming follow-up study found that it was better for college students’ mental health to post and engage with others on social media (versus passively scrolling) and to follow people they actually knew in real life versus strangers, celebrities, and influencers (who tend to focus on crafting the perfect image of their lives, which can lead to unhealthy social comparisons). “Celebrities and influencers exaggerate all the negative effects of social media,” including social comparison and body dissatisfaction, she says.

“It’s not that social media is in and of itself inherently problematic,” Hunt says. “It’s that using too much of it, or using it in the wrong way, is very problematic. My advice is if you’re going to use social media, follow friends for about one hour a day”—a number she bases on the findings of other studies suggesting that “60 minutes is probably the sweet spot,” and the fact that it’s a more realistic goal for people to shoot for than 30 minutes a day.

Spend three to four hours daily without any screens

Another way to build a healthier relationship with screens is to protect the time you spend without one. People should spend at least three to four hours each day completely detached from screens, Christakis says. His research has found screen time affects children’s language skills and is correlated with potential behavior problems. “I think what we really need to focus on as a society is having other more healthy, traditional ways of engaging with the people in front of you or even with yourself,” he says.

To get the biggest benefits, make sure you spend some of your screen-free time being physically active. One 2020 study conducted in Canada surveyed people during the pandemic and found that when people did two habits together—limiting screen time and exercising outdoors—they got the biggest boosts to their mental and general health, compared to people who increased their screen time or didn’t exercise outdoors.

Stop using screens at least an hour before bedtime for better sleep

Dr. Gregory Marcus, associate chief of cardiology for research at UCSF Health, studied the relationship between screen time and sleep as part of the Health eHeart Study, an ongoing global study with participants ages 18 to over 80. He and his team found that using a screen within an hour of bedtime makes it harder to fall asleep and negatively affects both sleep quality and duration.

“For people who have difficulty sleeping, whether it’s falling asleep or maintaining sleep, I would recommend leaving your phone in another room,” Marcus says. “Make it difficult to get to your phone so you don’t just naturally reach for it.”

Take a break every 20 minutes for eye health

Excessive screen use can also damage the eyes. Many adults now have digital eye strain, a condition caused by focusing on close objects—like phone screens—for too long that can lead to eye fatigue, eye pain, and blurred vision, says Dr. Megan Collins, assistant professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins Medicine’s Wilmer Eye Institute. Some early research also suggests that excessive screen time during the pandemic may even be leading to increased rates of myopia, or nearsightedness.

Collins says ophthalmologists often tout the benefits of the 20-20-20 rule—for every 20 minutes you’re on a screen, give your eyes a 20-second break by focusing on something 20 feet or further away. “It helps the eyes from being in this prolonged state of accommodation and focusing on things up close,” she says.

Set even lower limits for yourself if you’re a parent

Recent research has found that too much screen time can have detrimental effects on children’s memory, attention, communication, and social and language skills. And parents teach how much screen time is acceptable by example: one study published in the journal BMC Public Health found that adults who limit their own screen time are more likely to also limit their children’s screen time.

“It is not just the presence of screen time rules and restrictions that is important, but also the support through adult modeling of low screen use,” the study authors wrote. “Parents who model low screen time are more likely to impose stricter screen time rules on their children. In contrast, if parents are high screen users themselves, their efforts to impose screen time restrictions for children are more likely to fail.”

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