Quaran-Screen: Everything You Should Know About Screen Time During The Pandemic

Worried about the effects of prolonged screen time while at home in quarantine? Experts offer advice for setting healthy boundaries.

By Katherine Gianni

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Photo by Jay Wennington on Unsplash.

According to a 2019 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 81% of Americans surveyed admitted that they go online on a daily basis, with 28% self-reporting that they are browsing the web on their devices “almost constantly.” This phenomenon of the never-ending scroll has continued to escalate as stay-at-home orders remain in place across the country. The Washington Post recently detailed how increased weekly screen time reports have left some users ‘horrified’ about their phone, tablet, and computer habits while in quarantine.

We reached out to Joelle Renstrom, expert on the cultural and social effects of technology and lecturer within the College of General Studies, and Jenna Titelbaum, optometrist and Assistant Professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, to learn more about the impacts of prolonged screen time. They each weighed in on the varying levels of attachment to our devices, the physical and mental health effects of screen exposure, and how to stay productive both on and offline during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How much screen time is considered “healthy?”

Renstrom: It depends on the age of the person and what “screen time” means. Screen time can be engaging on social media, playing video games, watching Sesame Street or other educational programming, attending classes via Zoom, having family reunions on FaceTime, etc. Screen time is not all equal, and that’s one reason quantifying it in hours as a one-size-fits-all recommendation is problematic. Kids should have less screen time than adults, of course (and babies shouldn’t have any), but this is all necessarily changing right now as screen time becomes the main or only vehicle for education.

Titelbaum: I think most people would argue how much screen time is considered unhealthy. During this time of remote learning and working from home, it is necessary to use our devices, but to also remember to balance that screen time by spending time outdoors (with a mask on) as it is helpful for our eyes, especially for children and young adults. We also have something called the 20–20–20 rule which advises that for every 20 minutes of computer time to look 20 feet away (out a window, down a hallway, etc.) for 20 seconds to relax the eyes.

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Photo by Marjan Blan on Unsplash.

With so much of our work, social, and educational lives now taking place virtually, should we be concerned about increased levels of screen exposure during quarantine?

Renstrom: Yes and no. Right now, I’m not sure how much it makes sense to worry about increased screen exposure. What other options do we have? For students, teachers, and so many other workers, this is our best workaround. So I’m not personally worrying about it right now — there are bigger fish to fry. However, I’m quite worried about what this acceleration of tech adoption will mean for work, for education, and for our social lives. I wrote more about it here.

How can people begin establishing rules or boundaries when it comes to screen-use? Are there any apps or device settings that can be used for this?

Renstrom: I use Freedom, which blocks access to email, apps, and social media for however long you choose. It’s really hard to have boundaries with tech when you’re on tech — if I’m writing an article on my computer, my email notifications are pinging and my open tabs beckon to me. That’s why people have to be conscious about setting up their own boundaries. Even something like setting a timer for 20 minutes and concentrating on one task is helpful — you can check your messages and whatnot after the timer dings. But ultimately, people who aren’t concerned about screen exposure, shortened attention spans, etc. won’t be motivated to discipline their tech use.

What are some of the biggest concerns around screen time use?

Titelbaum: Extra screen exposure can cause nearsightedness, dry eye, eye strain and possibly retinal changes due to blue light emission. Most of these changes can be alleviated by balancing screen time with time outside or at least away from visually demanding platforms.

Renstrom: Decreased social interactions/skills, prioritization of quantity over quality when it comes to interactions, cognitive degradation and/or delayed cognitive formation for kids, inability to concentrate, lack of imagination (this is what happens when we’re never bored), privacy/data mining, reliance on technology for things we once did ourselves (like navigate a new area), exposure to misinformation, encouraging the expectation of being available 24/7 for work, and so many other concerns.

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

Are there health effects that correlate to prolonged screen time (vision, posture, neurological, cardio-vascular, etc.)?

Titelbaum: In children we are most concerned with the progression of myopia (nearsightedness) that has been found to be related to both genetic and environmental factors — the environmental factors being the ones that we can control such as screen time. In adults we are more concerned with ‘computer vision syndrome’ which can be caused by increased near work leading to both eye strain and dry eye. Lastly, blue light emission from computers/tablets/phones is also of concern for the retina. There has to be more studies in humans on this as many of the data is animal models. This has led to the use of ‘blue blocking’ glasses which have become very popular in recent years.

Renstrom: All of the above. It depends how people are sitting, what device they’re using, etc. But posture and neck/back problems are common, as are headaches and blurred vision. There are neurological effects, though we need more data to definitively know what they mean, especially for adults. Lack of exercise because we’re sitting (not just on screens) is an issue as well. And I think emotionally/mentally, there’s a huge issue. Social media makes people more depressed and isolated, and it also perpetuates the idea that some people have “perfect” lives, which can make other people feel inadequate.

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Photo by Gigi on Unsplash.

Are there certain times of day when people should attempt to limit their screen use? Perhaps first thing in the morning, or before falling asleep at night?

Titelbaum: I would recommend not using screen time before bed as it can negatively affect our sleep. I frequently point people to this study on screen time and sleep among school-aged children and adolescents.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. For research updates from the Boston University School of Medicine, follow @BUMedicine. To receive news from the College of General Studies, visit @BUCGS. To read more of Professor Renstrom’s writing and commentary follow @couldthishappen.

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Cutting-edge research and commentary out of Boston University, home to Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners and Guggenheim Scholars. Find an expert: bu.edu/experts

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